Mini: Is more communication better in teams? (Nancy Cooke and Stephen Fiore)

February 23, 2021 Daniel Serfaty
Mini: Is more communication better in teams? (Nancy Cooke and Stephen Fiore)
Mini: Is more communication better in teams? (Nancy Cooke and Stephen Fiore)
Feb 23, 2021
Daniel Serfaty

Effective communication can make or break a team. Most people would assume that more communication would lead to a better team. However, is that really the case: is more communication better in teams?  Join MINDWORKS host, Daniel Serfaty, as he discusses this question with Dr. Nancy Cooke, the Director of Arizona State University’s Center for Human, AI and Robot Teams, and Dr. Stephen Fiore, Director of the Cognitive Sciences Laboratory at University of Central Florida. 

Listen to the entire interview in Episode 7, The Magic of Teams Part 1: The ABCs of Teams.

Show Notes Transcript

Effective communication can make or break a team. Most people would assume that more communication would lead to a better team. However, is that really the case: is more communication better in teams?  Join MINDWORKS host, Daniel Serfaty, as he discusses this question with Dr. Nancy Cooke, the Director of Arizona State University’s Center for Human, AI and Robot Teams, and Dr. Stephen Fiore, Director of the Cognitive Sciences Laboratory at University of Central Florida. 

Listen to the entire interview in Episode 7, The Magic of Teams Part 1: The ABCs of Teams.

Daniel Serfaty: Nancy, perhaps you can illustrate, add to what Steve is saying. The study of groups of collective for collective behavior has been around for more than a century, but in the past I would say 30 years there was more of a focus of understanding teams the way you defined them earlier. Can you point for our audience one or two if not breakthroughs but at least a key insight that this research has produced that was actually implemented in management teams, in our law enforcement teams, in military teams, in medical teams. Something that we didn't know, we didn't articulate as well maybe 30 years ago but today we know.

Nancy Cooke: Well, I think we had a better handle on what goes wrong in teams. And so when we go out to industry and look at some of their teams, there are certain things that come up again and again, and in my experience they have to deal with two things: communication and usually it's lack thereof, inadequate communication, or role conflict. Not knowing who's supposed to do what, not knowing what you're supposed to do, and that wreaks a lot of havoc in teams. 

But communication is definitely a big one and that's what a lot of my research has focused on. How do we measure team communication and say something about that communication? We look at the communication dynamics and not just the content of what's being said, but who's talking to who. And looking at those patterns over time provides a good way to measure team cognition without getting in the way, without having to stop them and ask them to fill out a survey. But we've really made a lot of progress, I think, in that area and more generally in just how we measure teams and team cognition.

Daniel Serfaty: That's fascinating. Let's talk a little bit about communication because if you open a popular literature or even sprinkly sometime a management kind of publication, not scientific publication, there is a thing that people preach about more communication is better. Is more communication better in teams always?

Nancy Cooke: Not always, no. Sometimes communication that is either meaningless or maybe even destructive is not better. So it's definitely not more is better. In fact sometimes you want to be as succinct as possible. In the military, for instance, we don't want to go on and on because you don't have time and you have to convey exactly what the intent is or what the next action is as clearly as possible.

Daniel Serfaty: That's interesting. So selective communication rather than more communication. I'm sure this is a key debate in the team research literature. Steve, do you want to add something to what Nancy just said about communications in particular?

Stephen Fiore: The study of communication is one of these areas that has co-evolved with the study of groups over the 20th century. And it's an important area because when studying communication it helped create these other concepts that are really important for the understanding of teams. And the specific example is related to your question about is more better. And some of the early research looking at expert teams showed that, no, good teams do not communicate as much. They only communicate when needed and independently we had Judith Orasanu and Jan [Canabaru] develop the shared mental model concept based upon that kind of research and the inference they were drawing is team members knew what each other knew, and therefore did not have to engage in explicit communication about everything. 

They could be brief and they could speak about only something that they knew was relevant to the task at hand, so they didn't have to explain everything all of the time because they knew their teammates knew these kinds of interaction patterns, their roles, and they would look at a situation and identify what was going on and then speak about only the important components of that. So they didn't talk as much as poor teams.

Daniel Serfaty: That's an interesting insight actually. Nancy, is it linked to the concept that you said about role conflict in a sense that if I don't know, in addition to knowing what the other person knows or doesn't know, that I need to know also what the other person does and doesn't do. It's not just about knowledge.

Nancy Cooke: Exactly. This is also linked to a very famous article, Entin and Serfaty, that talks about implicit communication, and the idea that when you know more about what everybody else is doing on the team, you don't have to communicate as much. You communicate implicitly.

Daniel Serfaty: So as we explore basically what we know about teams, I want to ask a question. In your experience, you've observed several kinds of teams and you've studied many kinds of teams, certainly in very different work environments, some mission critical, some other just regular work teams. What stresses a team the most? I'm an evil person on the outside and I want to disrupt the work of a team. How can I stress that team the most?

Nancy Cooke: Good question. I think I would interfere with their communications. If the team can't communicate, then all you're left with is the implicit part, and they'd have to be really well-trained in order to keep going.

Daniel Serfaty: Steve, if you are that nefarious agent from the outside who wants to disrupt the working of a team, what would you do?

Stephen Fiore: I would look at some of these frameworks, like the ABCs, the attitudinal, the behavioral and cognitive features of teamwork. I could mess with the attitudinal component such as trust and do something to diminish the trust on that team, therefore they won't communicate as much or they'll be deceptive in their own communications because they don't trust each other. Another attitudinal component would be psychological safety. I could disrupt that by insulting members of the team so they're not wanting to speak out anymore. We could look at the behaviors. We could increase the performance monitoring that goes on so they'll be worried that they're always watched. That may cause then to choke. 

We could influence the leadership, the shared leadership on that team such that one person may be more dominant than another and create this imbalance in coordination. You could interfere with their cognition where you could change the transactive memory system or the shared mental model through something like membership change. So pull a member out of that team and put someone into that team. Those are all the kinds of features we know from studying teams in multiple domains that will produce some kind of process and outcome disruption. 

Daniel Serfaty: I'm impressed you thought about many, many ways to disrupt things, Steve. But in fact, I know that you are not a nefarious agent and you won't do that. But in a sense, working in different organizations, sometimes the organizational climate around a team actually is inducing all the effects that you just described or many of them. Teams don't work in a void. They usually are part of a larger organization. To what degree is the variables of that larger organization that surround the teams: other teams, enterprises, departments, affects the performance of the team itself? Because in the lab quite often we isolate those variables in order to manipulate just the variable that we want. But those stressors or any other variable that we apply to a team sometime comes not from a manipulation but just from a climate or a culture or some external event. Nancy, you want to comment on that a little bit?

Nancy Cooke: I think that's exactly right. We do have research out there on multi-team systems, but I think what you're talking about maybe is a little bit different. So it's the climate surrounding the team. I know in one petroleum organization I visited, it turned out that there were some bad teamwork and part of it boiled down to the climate and what individuals were rewarded for. They were told that safety was most important, but they were really rewarded for productivity. And so this whole climate really created a lot of friction on the team when people had safety issues and they would just conflict with their goals to be more productive. So yes, it can have a huge effect.

Daniel Serfaty: You mention multi-team systems. I'm sure our audience is not necessarily familiar with that concept. What is that?

Nancy Cooke: Some people call it a team of teams and we do have this a lot. In the military you'll have platoons and squads and everybody is interacting at some level. We're actually developing a testbed to try to study this where we're going to be interacting using our UAV testbed, unmanned aerial vehicle, with a similar testbed at Georgia Tech and one at the Air Force Research Lab also connected to a ground battlefield kind of simulation. And so we're hoping to do research that looks more at these really complex interactions. 

Daniel Serfaty: And I'm sure your systems approach to understanding those complexities help here because in a sense it's a system of systems. We talked quite a bit about how teams think, how teams work, how teams solve problems together. Steve, what do we know, if anything, Steve and Nancy actually, this question is for both of you, about the way teams learn? How do they learn together or is just the sum of the individual learning? Is there particular ways teams acquire skills and knowledge, learn in a sense, that is different from the way individuals learn?

Stephen Fiore: I think I'll reframe it as how can you facilitate learning in teams? And I don't know that it's necessarily different and one key example that comes to mind is the process of reflection and feedback. There's debriefing as really a crucial part of any team, and the military has done debriefing. They do pre-briefing, they do debriefing. Sports teams do this as well where they'll engage in these kinds of preparatory activities where they'll watch game tapes and prepare for an opponent, but then they'll watch the game tapes after a game and then they'll reflect on what went well and what went poorly. And this is an area that I'd say is one of the more robust findings in team research because there's a lot of evidence to show that debriefing, this reflective activity, after some performance can facilitate learning. 

You have to put the right structure in place, meaning it has to be facilitated, it has to be guided or else there's going to be potential group dynamics that interfere with a good discussion. People might be intimidated, people might be afraid to speak clearly and honestly about what went wrong. But when you have this structure in place, you know they can identify, hey, you did that poorly, or I did that poorly. When you have things like psychological safety, when you have trust on that team, you can speak that way to each other. You can communicate in effective, explicit ways where you can identify where the team did poorly and where they did well. So that reflective activity produces the kind of learning that they then take into the next performance episode.

Daniel Serfaty: Reflection and feedback certainly. Thank you. As we are looking, again, in a sense in the rear view mirror before we move to the second part of our podcast which is going to look at the future of teams, and both of you started planting some seeds for that one. I want to ask the question, if you look back at your career in fact or at least the part of your career where you focused on teams and teamwork, was there an aha moment at some point besides the one you had maybe in graduate school, or maybe that one too that you described earlier, an aha moment, suddenly an insight that you gained when you grasped something about teams that you didn't know before?

Nancy Cooke: One aha moment was when I was thinking about team situation awareness and what does that mean and how would we even measure it. Is it the idea that everybody on the team knows the same stuff about the whole situation, everybody knows everything. And I didn't think that sounded right, but I was in a parking garage. I was at a conference with my graduate student or postdoc at the time in a rental car. And I was backing the rental car up, this is kind of an embarrassing story about my driving skill. And I almost backed it right into a cement pole, but I didn't. And why didn't I is because my post-doc did his job and pointed out that, "Oh, don't back up. You're backing up into a pole." And at that moment I thought, well, this is what team situation awareness is, conveying information on the team to the right person at the right time in order to avoid a disaster in this case.

Daniel Serfaty: That's a great example. So you had the perfect mental model of the absent-minded professor at that point. Steve, can you share with us one of those insights or aha moment in your quest to understand teams better? 

Stephen Fiore: Sure. One would be a project I was working on with Nancy and a number of other people in the early 2000s and we were trying to develop the very complicated research proposal of a center, a $25 million center funded by NSF. We had a small grant called a planning grant to develop the concept. And with that grant, we were supposed to be spending time thinking about what would you do with $5 million a year to study? And in our case it was expertise. And in that project, we were trying to coordinate among a number of different scientists with different kinds of specialties. And in my role as a co-PI on that project, I was struggling with how do we do this better? So I said, well, what does the literature say about how you coordinate science teams? And the aha moment was, hell, we've never studied scientific teams.

So anyone that had looked at it were not what we would call organizational scientists or training researchers. There had been some people in policy that had looked at it, but certainly not the way we team researchers study team. So that was the aha moment that there was this huge gap in the study of teams where we had never really looked at scientific teams and how to improve teamwork in collaborations and science. So that kind of changed my career but I didn't really do anything about it for a few years and wrote a paper in 2008 that said, this is an important topic, and there were enough people in Washington interested in that were also pursuing it. So I started collaborating with people at the National Institutes of Health, what we now refer to as the science of team science. We spent a lot of time trying to cultivate this. So people like you, people like Nancy, people who studied teams will recognize this as an important area of inquiry.