Behavioural Flexibility and Collective Intelligence

Adapt or Die.

Leon Megginson, a professor from Louisiana State University is credited for this well-known phrase in a speech he delivered discussing the works of naturalist Charles Darwin. In my 25+ years in consulting, I have heard and likely said this phrase several times. Adaptability in business continues to have significant importance for an organization’s success and is unlikely to ever recline. This is not news to any of us.

We often consider how the larger organization will adapt its services and/or products to meet consumers’ needs and wants. Or to keep up with their competitors. I have been a part of many strategic discussions where a small group of leaders debate how the larger organization will need to pivot to increase market share or recover from a major loss or some other lofty reason. But rarely have those discussions talked about the actual behavioural flexibility that will be needed at the people level to make any of this possible.

Collective Intelligence is a term I first investigated about a decade ago with one particular lecture, from Dr. Anita Williams Woolley, forming the foundation of my understanding. It has noted most often been in discussions of animals and insects but over the last decade or so more focus on collective intelligence in social groups has been researched.

bee and beehive
Photo by David Hablützel on

The study discussed within the lecture by Dr. Woolley notes that a key outcome of the collective intelligence of a group is that it is many times more predictive of the group performance versus the collective IQ of the individuals themselves. This is believed to be true because when it exists we most often notice the individuals within team teams are more creative. They are better at decision-making tasks, execution tasks and negotiation tasks. This leads to more innovation. As it turns out, the ability to adapt at the individual level, also known as behavioural flexibility, is key to a team’s collective intelligence. The question is not always whether people “can” adapt but do they feel safe to do so. Fear or anxiety and poor interpersonal trust will destroy our ability to change.

man in yellow protective suit stretching
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Collective intelligence, therefore, is the result of a safe environment. But we shouldn’t have to put on a protective suite to feel safe. That will just restrict us in our performance.

If everyone is feeling safe at work then you get a diversity of thought, innovation, and new ideas. People feel comfortable saying that is a silly idea and challenging each other to make it better.  They can say no. They can take risks that sometimes lead to mistakes but most importantly leads to new learning which leads to the next innovation. Everyone brings their unique strengths, skills, capabilities and experience AND collective intelligence is the power factor of putting those individuals together. How well they rise is based on how much trust and psychological safety exist.

As an organization have you invested in your teams to have that psychological safety needed to rise? Do you even know what you would need to invest in?

In a recent podcast interview with Dr. Amy Silver, Australian clinical psychologist, international speaker and author, there were 3 key ingredients for a team to build collective intelligence

1 – People understand the collective why and believe in it.  A first question may be are you a team or a group? As a team, you have one or more common goals, and those goals are more important or equal than any individual goals. Versus as a group you happen to be a collection of people that for at least one instance you have something that brings you together.

The easiest example for me to reference is sports. I have played volleyball almost all my life and have been part of many teams and groups in this activity. Today I play with a group of individuals that have come together because we enjoy the game and happen to know this one person who convinced us all to join him once a week in a social VB league. As a group, we have never agreed on a common goal. Each of us comes to the game for different reasons. Some players are taking it extremely seriously getting quite upset when we play poorly whereas others are there just for fun and the post-game beer. In high school, it was not that different. Each player had a different reason that had them join the VB “team”. I can recall one player wanted to be able to say they played three different sports, one for every season, as that gave them a different letter on their varsity jacket. For others, they thought the VB coach was hot – which to be fair he was.

How well either of these teams came together for a singular goal that we put above our individual goals is how well we became a true team and then how well we performed. My high school VB coach motivated us to work towards a common goal. And that goal was broken down into unique plays that each player would still need to understand and care about to achieve the peak performance for the team. How well the team performed in each volley versus whether any one individual elevated their personal goals to be more important mattered. I couldn’t be concerned about how well my ass looked in my shorts and also be the best setter I could be for any given play. I also needed to understand how my role fit into the bigger picture.

2 – Self Leadership. Do you understand how to trigger your best self? More specifically, do you have the self-awareness to notice what gets you engaged or excited AND what puts you in internal conflict? We sometimes call this a trigger event, and I believe triggers can be for both the bad and good. For example, I know that putting on music will trigger me to the next level of engagement in whatever I happen to be doing. Whether that be boxing, cooking or analyzing a spreadsheet. Similarly, I can be brought down, feeling either disengaged, frustrated, confused or a myriad of other things from specific experiences – like if I feel we are wasting time over-analyzing a situation. This self-awareness might be mistaken for emotional intelligence depending on whose definition of emotional intelligence you are following. The key is the self-awareness of how you react/behave in your environment and the ability to adjust based on that awareness. It’s recognizing that we are all flawed and being able to notice when we are not showing up as our best selves and having the ability to adjust – i.e., behavioural flexibility.

Going back to volleyball, today when I play with someone who is taking the game “too” seriously I start to tune out the entire game. If I don’t find a new focus, then I end up becoming completely disengaged in the game and my level of play goes significantly down. What I have learned about myself is this is when I lean into my strength of inclusivity, be even more “social” with the other team members then I get re-engaged. I know how to trigger my best performance in that moment.

3 – Take responsibility for activating the best in others. People understand their impact on others and can adapt to create an environment where both of you feel you can be your authentic selves with respect to your differences. The best example I have for myself is I have the strength of being quick to act. For some individuals I might work with (or live with – aka husband) that could often be experienced as rushed, careless or reckless. This most often will happen with individuals who have a strong capability of being reserved or one might say cautious. There is a time and place for both. I know how to be reserved even if I don’t particularly find it a comfortable state naturally. So, when I know I’m working closely with someone that values caution I need to adapt to avoid triggering them. It does not mean I have to slow down to their pace. But it does mean I have to understand what they are motivated by which is driving that reserved behavior. If I can collaborate to meet that need then speed becomes less of a concern, and we can find a pace that works for us both. Besides knowing our own strengths and motivations as well as others, this also requires individuals to take responsibility for building trust and requires us each to take risks by being the first to be vulnerable with others.

If we go back to the social VB team and “that guy”, how safe do I feel speaking to this person and sharing the impact he is having on me? Asking them to remember this is for fun and while we all want to play well and ideally win, this is above all else a social VB league. That is just one potential approach. The key question is would that approach activate the best in him? Maybe but maybe not.  In this case, I would assume that he values winning and high performance above all other things. I would likely do better to lead with empathy, showing that I can see how important this is to him and asking him to reflect on how well he thinks his shouting is improving the team’s performance. In that moment he’s forgotten and probably doesn’t even care that it’s a social league for fun so reminding him likely will have little effect. But he does likely care about how we can get the best performance of others and I can collaborate with him on how we might do that differently.

It’s rare for teams or groups we are put in to remain static. People come and go for a variety of reasons. We often are on multiple teams/groups in both our professional and personal lives. Which means we constantly need to be learning about each other and assessing what might be needed to increase psychological safety, behaviour flexibility and ultimately our collective intelligence and performance within a team.

If you would like to learn proven strategies for building this within your team, such as using Strengths Development Inventory as shown in the video, reach out and lets have an introductory conversation.

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