Five questions with team science researcher Susan Mohammed
Researchers like Susan Mohammed study the formation and functioning of teams, a field called team science. Team science is essential because understanding team dynamics strengthens team member unity. The application of team science tools and techniques builds strong team foundations for success.
Mohammed, a professor of psychology, provides team science consultations to Penn State research teams as part of Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s services. She also compiled a Team Science Toolbox with practical tools and techniques to assist with common team needs during formation, launch, maturation and assessment. The toolbox is available at https://ctsi.psu.edu/research-support/team-science-toolbox/.
A full interview with Mohammed is available in episode 8 of Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s Engage Podcast. Each episode aims to help listeners learn about the research process and how Penn State research helps improve our neighbors' and communities' health.
What is team science?
Mohammed: Team science is the study and application of principles, techniques and strategies to form teams, develop teams, lead teams and manage teams. One aspect is who is in the team and how can members work together and thrive in working together. In teams, there's this tension between diversity and unity. You have a team in the first place because people are different, and you need different expertise and backgrounds. You need people who think differently, but you also need unity in a team. You need some level of cohesion to be able to work together as a unified whole. There's this constant tension of what needs to be different and stay different, but also where do members need to get on the same page?
Why is team science important?
Mohammed: One of the important things about teams is just because you have a group of experts, it doesn't mean you have an expert team. You can have, especially in science teams, a whole lot of really smart, intelligent people. In sports teams, you can have really talented people, and yet you put them together and sometimes they are a huge flop. And you wonder, “how can this group of very intelligent, talented, skilled, highly skilled people not do well as a team?” It's because there's so much more. And it's all the teamwork parts of things.
Do people often think that teams “just work?”
Mohammed: Exactly. And I think we see it in science teams with trained scientists who are very good at what they do technically, but are not trained in team science. People in, for example, the physical sciences or engineering, don't necessarily have a social science background where they have given a lot of thought to team dynamics. Their attention is on different things.
So, yes, a lot of times, people just expect that teams will work well. They haven't thought about how there's a whole science around how to get teams to work well because many teams don't. A team has to be built.
What’s one tip you can give team leaders?
Mohammed: One thing we talk about is connection before content. Whether it's face-to-face or virtual, every meeting you have should start with "how are you?" Sometimes people call it chit-chat, but it ends up being so much more than that. You can ask people different questions. “What's your favorite season?” “What's your favorite time of year?” “What's your favorite color?” Questions start to help people communicate that you care about them, not just what they can bring to the team, but who they are as a person.
These things are essential in building trust, building a climate where people can feel free to say what they really think. You don't want a group-think mentality where everybody's a yes person but team members have reservations that they're not bringing up. That's a waste of time. How do you create that atmosphere where people feel like they can say it without risk of humiliation, without risk of embarrassment, without risk of even feeling weird in the team? It starts with, "I care about you. I want to get to know you more. What are your interests? What are your hobbies?"
For more information on the use of icebreaker activities in meetings, visit the Team Launch section of the Team Science Toolbox.
What kind of collaborations interest you?
Mohammed: I'm very interested in collaborations. I'm always looking for team samples. When you research teams, it's not easy to find team samples where team members complete a survey or provide valuable data. That’s always a great need that I'm looking for, and especially in a COVID world, it’s even more challenging. But I think that many of these team principles and the things that I'm interested in work in multiple settings. I'm very interested in partnering on temporal issues in teams. I also do work on team cognition - how do you get people on the same page?
About Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute
Penn State Clinical and Translational Science Institute provides tools, services and training to make health research more efficient at Penn State. It is an advocate for translational science at the University and is a bridge between basic scientists and clinical researchers. The institute encourages collaboration to discover new treatments, medical procedures and ways to diagnose disease. Learn more at https://ctsi.psu.edu.