Adaptive Team Coordination

By Entin, Elliot E.; Serfaty, Daniel | Human Factors, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Adaptive Team Coordination


Entin, Elliot E., Serfaty, Daniel, Human Factors


INTRODUCTION

A ubiquitous factor that teams have to confront and adapt to is stress induced by uncertainty, ambiguity, and time pressure. Stress reduces an individual's or team's flexibility and causes errors (e.g., the Vincennes incident). Janis and Mann (1977) stated that under stress, particularly high stress, team members may experience such an inordinate amount of cognitive constriction and perseveration that their thought processes are disrupted. Not all teams, however, appear to be equally affected. Serfaty, Entin, and Deckert (1993) found that an increase in the level of stress did not necessarily result in a decrease in the team's outcome performance. For example, increasing target uncertainty did not have a direct effect on the identification error-rate of the team; team members simply increased their information-seeking rate. In other words, team members coped by altering their information-seeking strategy, a characteristic that LaPorte and Consolini (1988) attributed to highly reliable teams. The most striking evidence of team adaptation to stress in the experiment conducted by Serfaty, Entin, and Deckert (1993), however, came from the observation that teams were able to maintain the same level of performance with one-third of the time available to make decisions.

We maintain, as did Serfaty, Entin, and Deckert (1993), that the primary adaptation mechanism that allowed these teams and teams in general to maintain and improve their performance under a high level of time pressure was a switch from explicit to implicit coordination, a special mode of coordination (Kleinman & Serfaty, 1989; Orasanu, 1990; Wang, Luh, Serfaty, & Kleinman, 1991).

Cannon-Bowers and Salas (1990), Orasanu (1990), and others have effectively argued that implicit coordination involves the use of shared or mutual mental models among team members. It is hypothesized that shared mental models are made up of two principal components: a common or consistent model of the tactical situation among team members and a set of mutual mental models about the other team-member functions. It is the mutual mental models that team members have of one another that allow one team member to preempt the actions and needs of another so that actions can be coordinated and needs met in the absence of explicit communication. In this way implicit coordination reduces communication and coordination overhead. For example, in a study to observe how teams cope and adapt to high levels of stress, Entin, Serfaty, Entin, and Deckert (1993) reported that there was a strong correlation (.79) between the use of implicit coordination and the performance levels of the six teams that participated in the experiment. Moreover, the use of implicit coordination was adaptive to time-pressure-induced stress. The three higher-performing teams in the experiment increased their use of implicit coordination as time pressure increased, whereas the three lower-performing teams did not. Presumably some teams are able to employ their mutual mental models and shift to implicit communication modes under high stress, thereby reducing their communication and coordination load so that more attention can be focused on their mission tasks.

Orasanu's (1990) study of communication strategies used by airline pilots to cope with emergencies suggests that effective shared mental models are developed during periods of low workload and implemented during periods of high workload. To the extent that team members have accurate mental models, implicit coordination allows the team to maintain an effective level of performance under stress. To the extent that the mental models are lacking or inaccurate, high stress will lead to degraded performance.

We believe there is ample evidence that understanding superior team performance and coordination in terms of shared mental models is a promising approach to team training (Cannon-Bowers, Salas, & Converse, 1991; Kleinman & Serfaty, 1989; MacIntyre, Morgan, Salas, & Glickman, 1988). …

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