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InfoQ Homepage News Researcher Recognized for Advances in Team Performance Techniques

Researcher Recognized for Advances in Team Performance Techniques

Psychology professor Eduardo Salas is proving that teamwork is a teachable skill and, in August, became the first industrial-organizational (I-O) psychologist to receive the American Psychological Association (APA) Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology – the highest honor the APA confers.

APA President Susan McDaniel chose Salas for his contributions to effective team functioning, stating, “This comes at a time when collaboration and teamwork are the foundation of the corporate world, healthcare, aeronautics, science, and the arts.”

Salas has spent the last 30 years researching methods for team training in work settings. This research has translated into training programs to create cross-functional teams, by focusing on the specific work the team is expected to do, and the communications skills needed to support that work.

While much of his focus has been on medical teams, Salas’s research and framework on team training can be used in any environment where teams of people work together. As he notes in his book Team Training Essentials: A Research-Based Guide (2015), “In the modern working world, teams have become a mainstay of organizational life.” NASA has funded some of his research to help in preparation for a mission to Mars around 2030.

In an interview with HR Bartender, Salas says that team training can increase team performance by as much as 20%, compared to activities like team building. He notes: “[T]here is a science to teamwork and that science has produced useful, effective and implementable guidelines and principle. My advice – use the science to guide the development of teamwork in your organization.”

Additionally, Salas has worked with the health-care industry to develop training that can be customized for specific teams, based on their function and goals. TeamSTEPPS uses context-specific activities, including establishing communication norms and building a shared mental model in order to describe a specific situation.

The TeamSTEPPS training covers several components, each directed toward improving the ability for the team to work toward a common goal:

Team structure ensures that all members have a comprehensive and common understanding of the responsibilities of each role. To implement the training, the facilitator identifies a primary team (in medical teams, these focus on a patient), and then the facilitator defines which teams provide secondary support.

The instructor drills communication skills, thus preparing the team to use these skills automatically in stressful situations. The team members become expert at providing all the information needed in a given situation, including background information, recommendations, and confirmation of understanding. When team members ensure that all communication is complete, clear, brief, and timely they can maintain the strong communication lines that are essential to high level functioning.

Salas also discusses the need for clear leadership and describes team leadership skills in these materials. Leadership skills include explicitly identifying goals and changes in those goals, providing frequent feedback on performance, facilitating conflict resolution, and modelling effective teamwork.

The training also builds situational monitoring and mutual support skills. In a medical setting, situational monitoring involves team members evaluating the patient, the environment, the well-being of the team, and the next steps needed. Mutual support identifies ways to assist others and to receive and provide constructive feedback in a stressful situation.

Empirically based team training is proving valuable in team-based fields such as medicine and aerospace. Agile practitioners already know how critical team communication, explicit goals, and mutual support are. Salas’s award-winning research is thus a natural place to find resources that demonstrably improve team performance in the area of software development. 

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