By Shawn Hunter
Next time you’re standing at the
gate waiting to get on a flight and the crew shows up, watch how they interact
with each other. It will tell you a lot about how effective as a team they are
going to be up in the sky shortly.
Waller, a researcher at York University in Toronto, has been studying
swift-starting teams – and flight crews in particular. Swift-starting teams of
experts are everywhere – TV news crews comprised of journalists, camera,
lighting, audio and transmission engineers who come together to cover a media
event. The doctors, nurses, technicians in hospitals who assemble for an ER
shift to work together…or the engineers that may run a nuclear power plant. In
many cases these teams are comprised of highly-specialized professionals who
assemble as a team for a specific job or task, and sometimes have little or no
prior interaction with each other.
Specifically, members of
swift-forming expert teams are:
and familiar with their complex work environments.
quickly under situations of very evident time pressure.
- Have a
stable role on the team but ad hoc team membership.
complex, interdependent tasks that rely on interactions with team mates
during the performance to yield coordinated execution of well-trained
It turns out that how they
interact with one another during just the first 15-20 minutes is highly
predictive of how they will perform as a team for the duration of the job. The
reason is that interaction patterns are established early in these
relationships, and those patterns usually persist throughout the job.
simple and consistent communication
Waller and her colleagues tracked
each piece of dialogue uttered and identified the patterns in which they
develop. For example, “Input the coordinates” is a command. “We have good
weather today” is an observation. “Maybe we should ask tower control” is a
suggestion and “What should our heading be?” is an inquiry…and so on to include
disagreement, humor, anger or small-talk, etc. What they discovered is that
patterns of interaction often emerge quickly and persist throughout the
relationship. And the highest-performing teams established those patterns
early, keep them simple, consistent, and reciprocal and balanced with one
another. The lowest-performing teams had greater variety of conversational
patterns, more unique communication patterns, and members who showed lack of
reliance on other team members.
short and targeted communication
While big locker room pep-talks
or command-center speeches look good on television (think Ed Harris playing
flight director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13), they aren’t terribly effective
in driving team excellence. The most effective teams kept their communication
short, precise and targeted to a specific task or job sequence.
In the study, the researchers
measured what they called “reciprocity.” That is, to what extent the team
members relied on each other and balanced the participation of communication,
as well as the reliance on one another for information and expertise. For example,
if a team member showed “mono-actor” behavior of asking and answering their own
questions, they showed less reliance, and less reciprocity on other team
members. As a result, their study showed an overall decreased team performance
when team members showed a lack of reliance on others and lack of reciprocity
Here’s an interesting twist in
the study. The researchers hypothesized that any “mono-acting” behavior (when
someone asks and answers their own questions) would be on that part of the
pilot currently in control. They thought that the person with command of the
airplane would be the one offering the least reciprocity. Nope, it was the PNF
(pilot not flying), who lacked control of the plane who exhibited the greatest
amount of mono-acting behavior – in other words, was the least team player.
The best swift-forming teams of
experts keep their communication simple, targeted and balanced.