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In Sync

UCF professors share what makes a good team and how to encourage collaboration by focusing on three areas.

The Egyptian pyramids didn’t build themselves. Archaeological findings reveal that it took teams of thousands of people to pull off such a feat — from creating and molding the bricks to transporting and installing them. And getting humans on the moon for the very first time took a creative and skilled team of individuals to pull off the historic mission.

A fundamental aspect of human progress since the dawn of civilization, teamwork still lies at the heart of many achievements today and is increasingly needed to solve the challenges of tomorrow.

But what makes a great team? Here’s a look at some principles of teamwork in three areas, which can also be applied to teams more broadly.

Working Together in the Workplace

From communicating effectively to improving company culture, teamwork drives many benefits in the workplace. Professor of Psychology Mindy Shoss describes teamwork within an organization as having shared goals, processes and outputs. Her research involves studying worker well-being and understanding workplace environments.

“[A good team] is where people are excited about the work, want to continue to work together and where they feel there is an emotional and psychological benefit to being a part of the team,” Shoss says.

A workplace has taskwork and teamwork goals, she says, and collaboration is needed to meet these. First, a team must determine the problem they want to solve and identify their team’s expertise and resources. Then, they should figure out how to work together in a way that’s mutually beneficial, rewarding and supportive to get the work done.

Science Team Success

Scientific teamwork requires collaborative problem-solving to tackle challenging issues and develop effective solutions. Stephen Fiore, Pegasus Professor of cognitive sciences, has dedicated more than a decade to understanding how to foster and improve collaboration among researchers working across scientific disciplines. He was recently selected to serve on a National Academies of Sciences committee to identify best practices for success with team collaboration on complex scientific problems.

“When you have the right blend of attitudinal, behavioral and cognitive factors, the team is able to more efficiently coordinate their knowledge and behavior,” Fiore says.

One crucial attitudinal factor is psychological safety, or how comfortable people are to stand up for themselves and their abilities to debate. This is particularly relevant in science teams at universities where hierarchies exist — from graduate students to professors. These hierarchies can inhibit people’s willingness to take risks and productively argue about ideas, which is essential for innovation and making new discoveries, Fiore says.

Looking at behavioral factors, he emphasizes the importance of active listening to learn and understand. One cognitive factor to consider is creating shared knowledge within a team, which is particularly important when issues arise because team members will know who to ask for help.

Creating Synergy in Space

In complex environments such as outer space, teamwork is crucial to successful missions. Research Professor of Psychology Shawn Burke ’92 is working with NASA to explore team leadership, roles, cognition and cultural diversity among crew members, and finding ways to mitigate challenges.

As space flight rapidly evolves, there has been a push for long-duration missions to visit Mars and other planets. This can potentially lead to longer isolation for crew members and larger communication delays to Earth, Burke says. Boredom is another challenge, which can leave crew members feeling unmotivated.

Burke emphasizes a dependency on formal team roles, like the commander and mission specialist, and informal team roles such as the problem-solver and entertainer, which address the social and emotional needs that organizations often neglect. Meeting teams’ needs increase crew bonding, motivation and well-being, she says.

“While both task and social roles are crucial for effective team functioning, our research shows the increased importance of social roles in teams that are operating in isolated and confined environments such as space flight,” Burke says.

Moving Forward Together

From the workplace to scientific collaborations to space missions, effective teamwork requires an understanding of shared goals, leveraging diverse expertise and open communication. These principles remain as relevant as ever — reminding us that together we can overcome obstacles and accomplish the extraordinary.