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Team working and stress

Where team members have been trained and are highly motivated, then their team co-ordination should be more resilient to stress (physical, emotional or managerial). High stress has been shown to lead to decreases in communication and increases in errors, such as incorrect decisions. Environmental stressors that affect team performance in an operational environment include (Cannon-Bowers and Salas, 1998):

  • • multiple information sources
  • • incomplete, conflicting information
  • • rapidly changing, evolving scenarios
  • • requirement for team co-ordination
  • • adverse physical conditions
  • • performance pressure
  • • time pressure
  • • high work/information load
  • • auditory overload/interference
  • • threat.

Interventions aim to reduce the effect of these stressors on team performance, especially team decision-making. Team adaptation and co-ordination is one of a range of training interventions (e.g. event-based training, team leader training, crosstraining) and is designed to teach team members about the importance of teamwork and introduce important team working skills (Serfaty et al., 1998). The topic of training team working is discussed in more detail below.

Teams who maintain superior performance under high levels of workload and stress have been shown to employ different co-ordination strategies from low- performing teams (Serfaty et al., 1998). High-performing teams have the ability, when faced with demanding tasks, to adapt their decision-making strategies, coordination strategies and even their structure. It has been proposed that effective teams are those who have developed shared situational mental models of the task environment and the task, as well as a mental model of other team members’ tasks and abilities. The ability to anticipate changes in the situation and changes in team members’ needs contribute to the team’s superior performance, especially under stress.

Some of the key lessons learned from team co-ordination training include (Serfaty et al., 1998):

  • Adaptive teams are high performers: Flexibility in decision-making and teamwork processes is achieved through successful strategies of adaptation to stress. Stressors such as task uncertainty and time pressure stimulate changes in behaviour, strategy and organisational structure.
  • Team adaptive co-ordination is trainable: Co-ordination and communication strategies can be trained to allow operational teams to cope with stressful conditions. Strategies include adaptive co-ordination strategies and regular situational updates.
  • Significant improvements in team performance can be achieved using a relatively simple training intervention: Principles of training (i.e. instruction, demonstration, practice and feedback) can produce teamwork skill improvements.
  • Shared knowledge is necessary but not sufficient: Team co-ordination strategies that operate on, update and maintain the team’s shared mental models are necessary. Effective team training depends on the ability to help teams develop shared mental models and the ability to train teams in using these mental models.
  • Knowledge training should be combined with team skills training to maximise performance: Strengthening shared mental models should have a positive effect on the team and consequently on team performance. Shared mental models can be enhanced through additional interventions such as crosstraining (familiarising team members with the roles and tasks of other team members). As team members share a common awareness and understanding of the situation, then team performance is enhanced.

Much of the research described above has been undertaken with naval combat information centre teams under the tactical decision-making under stress (TADMU S) research programme (see Cannon-Bowers and Salas, 1998, for further details). The objective of the research programme was to understand complex team processes and to develop team training strategies. Many of the concepts researched and subsequent conclusions may also apply to control room personnel or operational teams in a range of settings.

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