What is c Factor, and Where Can I Get It?

Meredith just landed her first job at a run-of-the-mill industrial design firm. As the newest member of an important project team, she began as an “average” member of the group. The team was reasonably strong; they met their deadlines for the most part, but there was definitely room for improvement. After some time on the team, her buy-in for the project began to build. With this growing enthusiasm came a desire to be a more noticeable asset to the group. As such, she sought opportunities to become a leading participant in project meetings; often citing key models and theories she had studied in graduate school. Her enthusiasm drove group exchanges; at times she even dominated team interactions. To her dismay, though, the team’s creativity, effectiveness, and efficiency began to drop. “What’s happened?” Meredith asked herself. She was certain that contributing her knowledge and skills to the team would improve performance, not hinder it.

This vignette exemplifies concerns about group dynamics, relevant not only in organizational settings, but also across phases of individuals’ lives. In this article, we discuss the concept of collective intelligence – c factor (Woolley, Chabris, Pentland, Hashmi, & Malone, 2010). We also describe how group functioning can drastically influence collective intelligence and discuss the utilization of c factor as a tool for success in personal and professional group-based endeavors.

Intelligence: Individual vs. Collective

Most have certainly heard of and understand individual intelligence, but how many of us contemplate collective intelligence, where a group is understood to be a singular entity with measurable intelligence? Individual intelligence has been defined as the “…ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, to overcome obstacles by taking thought” (Neisser et al., 1996, p. 77); essentially, the capacity to problem-solve. This definition of individual intelligence has served education, industry, and healthcare for over a century. While the general idea of collective intelligence has been with us for at least a century, only recently have attempts been made to conceptualize and measure it.

Most notably, researchers have used the psychometric scheme of Spearman's generalized intelligence factor (g) as a theoretical footing (Woolley et al., 2010). However, Spearman's day was almost a hundred years ago when psychology was considered a fledgling field; a time when the discipline focused on anomalies and abnormalities – what's wrong with the human condition. What's happening now is a shift toward how human behavior functions in its optimal state, c factor is part of this recent wave of positive psychology pushing research of group behavior beyond well-studied dysfunctions such as "groupthink" and "social loafing." Woolley and colleagues (2010) empirically determined there actually is a c factor, which is a unique quality of each independent group. Using individual intelligence as an analog, they define c factor as “…the general ability of the group to perform a wide variety of tasks” (p.687). Indeed, c factor is significantly more predictive of group performance on tasks than average or maximum individual intelligence of the group members.

Why is c factor Important?

Much like the importance of individual intelligence to activities undertaken alone, c factor is important for activities that are conducted as a group. Any time individuals within a group make decisions or take action; the goal is effectiveness and efficiency. With this in mind, activities undertaken alone rely on individual competencies, viewpoints, opinions, and knowledge; conversely, group activities benefit from multiple competencies, viewpoints, opinions, and bases of knowledge. Even when the most prudent individual conducts a thorough investigation prior to decision-making, the most fundamental element distinguishing the group from the individual is the experiential component. That is, an individual represents his or her own perspective, developed through a collection of experiences, memories, and knowledge (Warshay, 1962). During group discussions numerous perspectives are simultaneously at play in the group dynamic. This cocktail of multiple experiential components constitutes a breadth of perspectives where self-representation is key. Rare is the individual who can accurately represent another’s perspective, with the exception of the individual who can embody the Native American adage of, “walking a mile in someone's moccasins.” Therefore, unique individual experience is a major component of the development of one’s perspective; an active conglomeration of individual perspectives highlights a major benefit of collective thinking. Participating in the group dynamic allows for on-the- spot access to this multitude of individual experiences, memories, and knowledge.

How Does a Group Achieve High Levels of c factor?

After initially exploring the concept of c factor, Woolley and colleagues (2010) considered factors that might be conducive to achieving high levels of c factor. Surprisingly, many aspects one might expect to enhance levels of c factor were ineffective in doing so. For instance, group motivation, unity, and satisfaction were not significant predictors of a group’s c factor. However, three elements were identified that impact c factor: social sensitivity, gender composition of the group, and equitable turn-taking.

Brainstorm © Unlisted Images / Fotosearch.comBrainstorm © Unlisted Images / Fotosearch.comThe first element impacting a group’s level of c factor is social sensitivity (Woolley et al., 2010), which has been defined as “…the perception in a social situation of those thoughts and feelings of others that relate to the situation” (Suchman, 1956, p. 75). Why might this ability help groups advance to higher levels of c factor? Possessing high levels of social sensitivity should result in congruent and conjunctive communication; two important attributes of supportive communication (Whetten & Cameron, 2011). Communication is congruent when both verbal and non-verbal cues are consistent. In other words, you’re not lying. Communication is conjunctive when it flows seamlessly from one contribution to the next. Therefore, with greater congruence – honesty – there should be more conjunctive interaction – flow – in which communication moves from one topic to another freely and naturally, a byproduct of greater connectivity between individuals.

The second element leading to higher displays of c factor as outlined by Woolley and colleagues (2010) is the gender composition of the group; specifically, the greater the proportion of women in the group the higher the level of c factor. However, this is highly related to social sensitivity, in that women tend to score higher on this ability (Hall, 1978; Woolley et al., 2010). As evidence, it has been shown that in group tasks, all-female groups exhibit enhanced performance as compared to all-male groups (Wood, 1987). Even so, this finding should not be taken to indicate that men lack the ability to exhibit social sensitivity in the same manner as women. A study by Koenig and Eagly (2005) found that removing stereotype threat equalized men’s ability to be socially sensitive. In other words, when men were not cued to be mindful of gender expectations, they were approximately as socially sensitive as women.

The third facilitative element is equitable turn-taking. Woolley and colleagues (2010) found when groups practice equitable turn-taking during discussions, higher levels of c factor were displayed than those in which a few members were dominant. In fact, intragroup communication techniques have been developed with the explicit goal to facilitate the participation of more passive group members while reducing domination by a few members (e.g., Sample, 1984). To accomplish this, consider a round-robin technique – where each person contributes sequentially based upon where they’re seated – this is, perhaps, the ultimate expression of equitable turn-taking. Though, bear in mind, it may be too linear for all settings. Depending upon the group, a rigid or overly structured approach might actually curtail creativity and stifle the free flow of information (Sample, 1984). The end goal of equitable turn-taking is the allowance of fair opportunity for input from each member of the group. Ultimately, the point is not to suppress more dominant individuals, but to draw input from those who tend to yield to the more dominant speakers. When this happens, by sheer default, there is less time available for those who have already had the floor; the dynamic results in equitable contributions from most of the group’s members.

The Easiest Route to Enhancing Your Group’s c factor

In determining the best route for enhancing the collective intelligence of one’s team, let’s consider the three elements from the Woolley et al., (2010) study in turn and apply each to Meredith’s current predicament. The first element, social sensitivity, is rooted in an individual’s earliest development and is related to a theory of mind (Premack & Woodruff, 1978). Certainly, individuals can increase social sensitivity (Goldstein & Winner, 2012), but doing so is a particularly personal and time-intensive endeavor that would be difficult to incorporate into a group dynamic. Even so, if one decided to improve this skill, it would surely increase an individual’s value in group endeavors. With that being said, it was Meredith’s passion and commitment to prove herself that suppressed her listening abilities; thereby over-riding what ability she might have had to be socially sensitive. Given this, becoming more socially sensitive is likely not the answer to improving her group’s c factor.

The second element outlined by Woolley and colleagues (2010) is the proportion of women in a group. While females exhibit greater social sensitivity (Hall, 1978), and contribute to greater collective intelligence (Woolley et al., 2010), the inclusion of more women is not necessarily beneficial to a group’s c factor. Recall that a fundamental distinction between groups and individuals is the experiential component. To truly harness the benefits of a collective, members must have applicable experiences that help broaden the group’s perspective. In this way, deliberately seeking to recruit additional women into Meredith’s group for the sake of gender, rather than based on the unique experience one can contribute is impractical, and possibly foolhardy. Much like social sensitivity, gender composition, is not the most practical avenue to increasing c factor in Meredith’s group.

Equitable turn-taking, the third element offered by Woolley et al. (2010), constitutes a group-wide canvassing of the constituency and developing a sense of the intentions, needs, preferences, fears, etc. of all stakeholders.  In its simplest form, fair and unbiased turn-taking can lead to a broadened exposure to relevant information and prior experiences that inform decision-making by the group. In this vein, past research has shown that experience can introduce bias into the decision-making process, possibly resulting in group polarization (Zhu, 2013). However, seeking multiple points-of-view provides a wider array of alternatives (Roberts, Letzring, Gribas, & Colman, 2015), which can then be evaluated through equitable turn-taking. This process likely reduces negative group effects – such as group polarization, groupthink, and even social loafing – as each group members’ experience and knowledge is fairly considered in the decision-making process.  Moreover, equity of speaking time may have the secondary long-term effect of enhancing social sensitivity as group members gain experience with listening. Taken together, equitable turn-taking is seemingly the most practical route to fostering higher levels of collective intelligence.

Let’s take this line of thought to Meredith’s situation, where her high enthusiasm is acting as a barrier to seeing others’ viewpoints. Although enthusiasm is generally positively related to group productivity (Milton, 1965), too much of it could hinder full-bodied group participation (Clark, 2012). As such, Meredith should consider soliciting a breadth of perspectives through equitable turn-taking. This would help prevent the group from allowing a single voice to dominate the snapshot that's developing inside their heads; rather, the group would sample as many points-of-view as possible within a practical time frame, then weigh the options, consider the ramifications, and make the final call.

The principle of equitable turn-taking within the group can also be applied by the individual. While taking opinion polls exclusively from like-minded people can be validating to one's goals, a far-reaching, forward-thinking individual will go beyond their own finite point-of-view. To become a solid asset to the group, Meredith must learn to skillfully manage her enthusiastic nature. Specifically, she must tone down her endless sharing of perspectives and knowledge and increasingly listen to and integrate others’ perspectives. One step to accomplishing this would be explicitly attending to the level of others’ contributions during team interactions using active listening techniques (Levi, 2013). Is it all Meredith? Or, does the pool of experiences, ideas, and decisions seem to be influenced equally across the members of the group? What distinguishes active listening from listening attentively is that the listener provides verbal feedback by paraphrasing what the speaker has said. This signifies to the group that there is an active attempt to understand the concepts being offered, which in turn, encourages richer group participation (Levi, 2013).

Group or individual process aside, at the heart of breadth is diversity in thinking (Mead, 1934; Warshay, 1962). A truly broadened perspective includes anyone who is a stakeholder of the relevant constituency, being mindful to consider viewpoints from ideological opposites, “devil's advocates”, and those from varied backgrounds (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, etc.). Diversity of thought, whether it's the result of a simple ideological difference or a different perspective due to gender or ethnicity, can stir the pot of creativity; the result can be constructive critical thinking and innovation (Levi, 2013). Conversely, requiring individuals of differing viewpoints to work closely toward a common goal can invite conflict – right? Yes, especially if the exchanges take on an overly personal tone and fail to focus on the key issues to accomplishing the group’s goal. This is where it's important for an in-group leader who is sensitive to diversity to guide the group back to productivity by de-emphasizing personal differences and keeping the matter-at-hand in the frame (Koivisto, Lipponen, & Platow, 2013; Platow & van Knippenberg, 2001; van Knippenberg, 2011). Furthermore, recall that groups high in c factor tend to distribute turn-taking equitably. This aspect can help a group's leader facilitate cooperation among individuals from different ideological standpoints and experiential backgrounds by fostering a sense of fair participation and acknowledgement.

What Does It All Mean?

Group dynamics have been a long-standing research tradition in psychology, business, and sociology. However, much of the existing literature has focused on problems that arise in group settings instead of the beneficial aspects of a collective. Focusing on collective intelligence, we described how three aspects of group functioning – social sensitivity, gender composition, and equitable turn-taking – can influence c factor and discussed tools for its enhancement and increased success in personal and professional group-based endeavors. We hope the vignette about Meredith provided a real-world view of this phenomenon and how it might be influenced. The key point here, by managing one’s turn-taking abilities and being socially sensitive, an individual can be a valued team member not only because of his/her skillset, but also because of one’s ability to facilitate increased c factor.


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