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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

What is the 'collective mind,' and how can it improve teamwork?

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Jacob Hirsh

What happens when we experience something with a group of people instead of doing it alone? Jacob Hirsh, an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at the Rotman School of Management, wanted to learn more about this. After reviewing existing studies, he found that group experiences, like listening to an announcement or learning something new, can have powerful impacts compared to solo experiences. “When you're processing information in a social context, compared to when you’re processing on your own, you get much more deeply embedded encoding of that information,” Hirsh says. 

This prompted him, along with his colleagues Garriy Shteynberg, Wouter Wolf, John A. Bargh, Erica B. Boothby, Andrew M. Colman, Gerald Echterhoff and Maya Rossignac-Milon, to write an opinion paper, “Theory of collective mind,” which was published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences in 2023.

Using a collective mind framework is a way for businesses to improve the way teams work together. But to understand the collective mind framework, Hirsh says we should first start with the theory of mind — a concept that comes from the cognitive sciences. “It’s mind-reading or mentalizing — trying to understand what other people are thinking,” Hirsh says. “Theory of mind is the ability to imagine what someone else is thinking and what’s inside their head.”

The theory of collective mind is an extension of the theory of mind. “Now we’re attributing mental states to an entire group of people,” says Hirsh. “What are we all experiencing together? What are our shared emotions, thoughts and perceptions of this experience?”

Hirsh emphasizes that this is just a theory. “We don't have direct access to other people's minds,” he explains. “It’s an inference. We’re speculating what might be going on inside somebody else’s head.” The experience of perceiving what the group as a whole is thinking is an automatic, intuitive process as we pick up on social cues such as facial expressions, body language, movement, tone of voice and gestures.

In their paper, the researchers point to studies showing that people were more likely to perceive what the collective mind was thinking when experiencing something as a group. This results in a group feeling more bonded, and often results in more cooperation. In addition, the group’s memory, emotions, motivation, persuasion, and behavioural learning is amplified. There are several implications for businesses that want to adopt a collective mind framework, says Hirsh.

When an organization is enacting cultural changes, such as sharing new equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives, Hirsh says that it’s more effective to deliver these messages when employees are together in a group. “Sending an email, where everyone is processing that information separately, is going to be less effective than having a common experience that everyone can share together,” he explains. “That’s when we all develop our collective self-perception. Everyone can see how we are all engaged and on board with the information, and that’s going to have a much more lasting impact than a single email.”

For remote workplaces, or when a group can’t meet up in person, Hirsh says that a video meeting can still be more effective than an email. Turning one’s video on during a group meeting will be more effective than audio-only, since other team members can still pick up on subtle social cues, like facial reactions.

Delivering training sessions in a group setting can also be more effective, according to the theory of collective mind. “Giving people individual training material is not going to help them much,” Hirsh says. “You’ll encode information more deeply if you’re learning with others around you.”

Teams that are interdependent — where one person’s work relies on another team member’s work — have a stronger collective self-perception, according to Hirsh. But for teams with more separate tasks, he says managers can create opportunities for employees to keep each other informed. “The simple act of sharing your work with other people brings that information into the domain of the collective mind,” he says.

Team leaders play an important role in encouraging this way of thinking. “The more that a team works toward a common goal and thinking ‘we are doing this together,’ the more powerful the collective mindset,” says Hirsh. He recommends leaders place emphasis on the collective – "How are we feeling about this?" or "How are we going to solve this challenge.”

“Leaders who are aware of the collective mindsets within their teams will be able to more effectively guide their organizational norms and culture,” Hirsh explains.

Teambuilding activities outside of the office, like an escape room or playing on a recreational sports team, also have great benefits, even if those activities aren’t strictly work-related. “When you’re co-attending something with other people, it strengthens social bonds between co-attendees and increases in cooperation,” Hirsh says.

Thinking collectively isn’t ideal for all tasks. For example, creative work is best done independently, according to Hirsh. “If you want to develop creative ideas, a group brainstorming session is the worst thing you can do,” he says. “Everyone will anchor on the first idea that’s presented and our minds will converge.”

Hirsh sees several benefits to the theory of collective mind. “As soon as you adopt this collective point of view, it becomes easier to anticipate other people's needs and other people's likely responses to you,” he says. “Collaboration and cooperation happen more smoothly when people are thinking at this collective level. You also have a stronger motivation to help the group because of increased social bonding.” While Hirsh says that the goal of a collective mindset isn’t something that needs to be stated explicitly, making team members more aware of its benefits can lead to them seeking out more opportunities to think and work synchronously with their peers.

With a collective mindset, it’s not just organizations as a whole that benefit, but individual team members too. “People will feel closer to each other,” Hirsh explains. “They’ll be more satisfied with each other too.”

Jacob Hirsh is an associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management at the  University of Toronto, Mississauga with a cross-appointment to Rotman School of Management.