On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

You think you have a team challenge? Try going to Mars!

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

Imagine living and working in a small, confined space with five other teammates for over a year. Your team needs to complete a series of scientific experiments and perform other rigorous tasks, with the goal of exploring a distant location in a dangerous, even life-threatening, mission. If you are successful, you will then spend a year "commuting" to your Earth home in the same confined quarters and challenging conditions (see the new Orion space capsule). During this assignment, "headquarters" cannot provide you with quick advice or coaching, because there is up to a 15-minute communication delay, but you still need to coordinate as a team with the people back at headquarters. From a personal perspective, during these three years, you cannot physically see Earth, feel gravity, and you cannot spend time with your family. And if you, or any of your teammates, are having a bad day, you cannot simply go out for a walk or call in sick. That is the challenge of long duration space exploration (LDSE).

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We are currently working on a three-year grant with NASA to better understand how to compose, train, and sustain resilient LDSE teams. I'll be talking about this in April during the Society for I/O Psychology Conference being held in Houston.

 While the nature of the LDSE mission is likely to evolve, several known characteristics need to be considered when selecting and developing a space flight crew:

  • Confined quarters and close proximity. The habitat that an LDSE crew will live and work in is quite small. This will create a feeling of confinement and crew members will spend long periods of time in close proximity to one another. Research in environments such as Antarctica suggests that prolonged time in close proximity can create significant threats to team cohesion (e.g., Biersner & Hogan, 1984).
  • Prolonged isolation from earth and family. During most space missions to date, crew members could physically see Earth and remain in regular contact with their family. During LDSE, crew members will no longer be able to see earth and communication delays will change the ways in which they can connect with family and friends.
  • Physiological stressors. There are a number of physiological and biomedical stressors that a crew member must overcome during LDSE, including loss of bone density and changes in circadian rhythm affecting sleep patterns (Williams, 2003).
  • Increased autonomy. During prior space missions, ground control remained in continuous contact with the flight crew and tightly managed the mission. LDSE crews will have greater autonomy because of communication lags and changes in operational tempo.
  • Slower work tempo than previous space missions. During shorter missions such as those on the International Space Station, the work agenda for space crews is very compressed. This prevents boredom. In contrast, during LDSE the pace of work will be slower, presenting different challenges including how to pace work to maximize productivity while preventing burnout and identification of the amount of recreation needed to maintain psychological health.
  • International team members. There is a high probability that a LDSE crew will have representatives from different countries and cultures leading to potential problems with disparate goals and interpersonal communication challenges.

So, are you feeling any better about your own teamwork challenges? We expect to learn a lot about team effectiveness from our work at NASA. For example, I'll write about building team resilience, an important need for most on-going teams, in a future blog entry.

What's the most challenging team situation you've experienced?