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Enhancing Teamwork to Improve Team Science

Teamwork and Team Science

The Science of Team Science community has had a robust discussion about the importance of teamwork in team science.1,2 Organizations research has helped and can continue to help inform this discussion. It is a source of important insights to help understand and enhance teamwork in team science.

Organizations research defines teamwork as a multidimensional concept consisting of three core components: 3-5

  • The behaviors that individuals use to accomplish their shared task (e.g., communication and expertise sharing);
  • Group cognitive states that emerge during collaborative work, such as having shared mental models (i.e., a shared understanding of the work, including a shared framework for understanding relevant variables and relationships between variables); and
  • Group affective states that arise, such as feeling psychologically safe in the group (i.e., feeling that one can openly share ideas, concerns, or suggestions with group members).

When there is good teamwork, the behaviors, cognitive states, and affective states of team members support completion of their shared task.

Organizations research has documented many benefits of good teamwork.6 For example:

  • Higher functioning teams make better decisions, address complexity and overcome setbacks with greater ease, and produce higher quality outcomes;8,14
  • Better teamwork is associated with project efficiency and cost savings;10 and
  • Individuals who participate in effective teamwork experience greater job satisfaction, knowledge growth, and skill development.5,7-9

Thus, good teamwork supports good team science.

Two Big Questions about Teamwork in Team Science

The importance of teamwork in team science raises at least two core questions for those concerned with improving team science:

  1. What challenges must be managed to facilitate teamwork in team science? and
  2. How can teamwork in team science be enhanced?

In what follows, we review high-level findings from the organizations literature about the answers to these two questions. Perhaps more important, we identify tools that can help researchers to measure teamwork -- because measuring teamwork is critically important for figuring out how to intervene to improve it.

Question 1: What challenges must be managed to facilitate teamwork in team science?

Organizations research has documented several key challenges to good teamwork:6,10,11

Examples of specific challenges
Cognitive challengesScientific knowledge has grown so rapidly that scientists must specialize. Unfortunately, specialization often produces communication challenges. 10,12,13 In particular, two sets of differences frequently challenge understanding:
  • Terminology differences. Often, individuals do not realize that they are using different terminology to refer to the same things until they have been communicating with one another for a while. In the interim, confusion can prevail.
  • Mental model differences.14 Individuals have a hard time communicating when they have different mental models (i.e., frameworks for understanding variables). It can be hard to digest new frameworks when accustomed to others.
Structural challenges Organizations often introduce structures and systems to support work that actually undermine collaboration. Three common areas where challenges arise are:
  • Team design strongly influences how well team members work together.15-20 Poor team design can lead to confusion, conflict, coordination challenges, and lack of accountability. Key issues in team design are whether team membership is clear and whether team members share a clear and compelling goal.
  • Information technology systems often do not “speak” easily to each other, making it difficult for collaborators with different systems to share and integrate information with ease.
  • Incentive systems may hinder collaboration when researchers are rewarded and promoted based only on their individual work.21
Interpersonal challengesCollaborative work requires dealing with social dynamics and the realities of working with humans. Some social dynamics that undermine collaboration include:
  • Not feeling psychologically safe in the team. Teams, particularly those responsible for complex problems, are often comprised of individuals who have not worked together previously,8 so members often lack the familiarity and trust that supports team functioning.22-24 In addition, professional hierarchies that place some disciplines in lower status positions create the feeling that the team is not a safe setting for open and equal sharing by all.25,26
  • Intergroup biases (e.g., one group's belief that another group consists of less skilled researchers) limit individuals' interest in engaging in collaborations that might otherwise be valuable.6,27
  • Differences in team member attributes (e.g., skill level, personality, and willingness to learn and share) can make it difficult to work together.

Question 2: How can teamwork in team science be enhanced?

Step 1: Measure Teamwork

The research summarized above shows that good teamwork is valuable to scientific outcomes, but that collaboration is challenging. Many science teams succumb to the challenges. This suggests that additional research is needed to identify specific conditions and activities that can help to support successful teamwork in team science.2,28,29

Instruments for assessing teamwork can facilitate future academic research on team effectiveness and also are valuable to leaders and members of science teams who wish to assess their teamwork for the purpose of improvement-oriented evaluation. Such tools can help to improve team efficiency and effectiveness by identifying what specifically needs improvement (e.g., behaviors, cognitive states and/or affective states) and what challenges are occurring.

We recently published a review of survey instruments designed to measure teamwork that were published in either the organizations research or health services research literatures.4 In sum, we found that:

  • 39 articles reporting the development of teamwork surveys were published in organizations research or health services research journals;
  • They were developed in many organizational contexts such as hospital intensive care units (ICUs), cross-functional psychiatric treatment units, software development teams, and manufacturing firms.
  • The 39 surveys assessed different dimensions of teamwork. The most commonly assessed dimensions were communication, coordination, and respect.
  • Only 10 of the surveys had been validated (i.e., shown to have psychometric properties indicating that they accurately measure what they purport to measure).

For this blog, we revisited the survey instruments identified in our review to select those with particular relevance to team science. We looked for surveys that:

  • Were developed in the context of science teams,
  • Focused on clearly defined team designs or behaviors that are likely relevant to team science (e.g., use of all members' expertise, which is core in team science), and
  • That were highly cited (e.g., the Team Learning and Psychological Safety Survey has been cited 1,200 times according to the ISI Web of Science).

Based on this informal review, we recommend four of these survey instruments for the team science context:

Four Survey Instruments that We Recommend for Measuring Teamwork in Team Science
Team Diagnostic Survey30A well-validated and highly-cited survey instrument demonstrated to help diagnose problems with team design and other structural issues as well as problems in team process.
Team Learning and Psychological Safety Survey25 A well-validated and highly-cited instrument used to assess a core interpersonal affective state in teams (i.e., how psychologically safe team members feel) and team learning. It was developed for a ground-breaking study that showed the link between psychological safety, team learning, and team performance.
Transdisciplinary Integration and Collaboration Survey Items28A rigorous set of survey items that can be used to assess behaviors and affective states within teams, developed within a team science context. It is not yet fully validated.
Teamwork Quality Survey5A well-validated instrument that assesses behaviors and affective states within teams. It provides an especially good example of survey items that reflect the specific work activities of the team. This survey could be adapted and validated for team science.

Step 2: Intervene and Support Teamwork

Once teamwork has been assessed, interventions can be implemented to target the specific problems that have been identified. Organizations research shows that at least three things can be leveraged to support more effective teamwork:

  • Effective team designs. Teams must (1) maintain clear and stable membership, (2) establish shared and compelling goals, and (3) institute ground rules for interactions. These guidelines help to address structural, cognitive, and interpersonal challenges by providing communal clarity.20,31,32
  • Leadership that supports and models inclusiveness of diverse others. In practice, this is reflected in team leaders who explicitly and publicly invite and appreciate the contributions of all team members. Research shows that these acts help to address the interpersonal challenges that can arise in teams. In the case of team science, this responsibility may belong to principal investigator(s) and/or senior member(s) of the team.6,26
  • Training in communication, group process, and conflict management.11,33 Such training can help address cognitive and interpersonal challenges (e.g., misunderstandings and difficult personalities). Many universities utilize executive education programs and consulting firms to provide short training programs that teach strategies for communicating and working effectively in teams.

Team science has the potential to advance science considerably and to make the process of scientific discovery more rewarding for individual scientists. However, the success of team science depends on effective teamwork. For many reasons, good teamwork may not happen naturally. We contend that teamwork in science can be improved by measuring teamwork and intervening where specific problems are identified. Doing so can help to maximize the effectiveness of team science, and ultimately help to achieve research goals more successfully.

References Return

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About the Author

Ingrid M. Nembhard, PhD, MS, is Associate Professor at Yale University School of Public Health and School of Management.
Melissa A. Valentine, PhD, MPA, is Assistant Professor at Stanford University School of Engineering

* Authors are listed alphabetically; each contributed equally to this piece.

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Add Comments

Team Work is Important, Tuesday, March 17, 2015

By Ted Williams

It is a nice post and quite informative and from beginning i think that team work is always a very important aspect to perform.