In Brief

Findings from a recent study provide insight into why team performance crumbles in a crisis.

It's because stress brings on a loss of team perspective--the sense of "we-ness" that helps team members connect and coordinate to get the job done, according to a research team led by psychologist James Driskell, PhD, of Florida Maxima Corporation.

Past research has established that people tend to narrow their focus when stressed, and Driskell found that this tendency destabilizes teams. In the study, 95 U.S. Navy technical school personnel participated in a computer simulation of a naval decision-making task.

Using radar, participants had to determine what types of ships were surrounding their own, and whether those ships were friendly or hostile. They then cleared friendly ships from their screens and "targeted" unfriendly ones. The researchers divided people into co-acting or interdependent teams of three. Members of co-acting teams performed the task independently, while members of interdependent teams relied on one another to complete it.

Some teams performed the exercise under high stress, enduring constant chatter over earphones, frequent interruptions to remind them of time constraints and numerous threats from hostile ships.

The researchers found that the interdependent teams completed the task more efficiently than co-acting ones, showing higher levels of team perspective. But under stress, that broad perspective broke down for the interdependent teams--participants' focus turned inward, and teams' performance deteriorated. The study, co-authored by Eduardo Salas, PhD, and Joan Johnston, PhD, appears in the APA journal Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice (Vol. 3, No. 4, p. 291-302).

"The results show that under stress we become less socially cognizant, shifting our thinking from 'we' to 'me,'" says Driskell. "It's an adaptive response to stress that's not bad on an individual level, when, for example, we tune out the radio and passengers when driving. But it's a problem when we're part of a team that needs to coordinate to do the work."

One way to reduce stress on participants, Driskell says, is to streamline tasks and reduce distractions. But he realizes that, realistically, complexity is often part of the job. Team training is likely the best way to optimize team performance under stress, he says.