News & Features — 19 August 2018 at 3:40 pm

Group Dynamics at the Extremes

Dr Nathan Smith / Psychologist / UK

We all know that teamwork and communication can make or break an expedition. So what affects how your group gels together in the field? Dr Nathan Smith is founder of the online School for Psychology in Extremes, In Extremis. A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Honorary Lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School and a former research scientist at the UK MOD Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), Nathan is ideally placed to give us an overview of the factors at play.

Medics work in some of the world’s most demanding environments. Think of those providing humanitarian support in low-resource camps in Syria and the Yemen, those offering their services to high-altitude expeditions in the Himalaya, tactical medics operating as part of a Medical Emergency Response Teams (MERT), or the solo medic relied upon for keeping a small team healthy during prolonged endurance endeavours through desert, jungle and polar environments.

In these examples, the medic will invariably have to work as part of a team often operating under intense physical, psychological and interpersonal stressors. It is likely that the team will be made up of people with different characteristics, including varying degrees of experience and a range of specialties, as well as diversity with regards to age, gender, culture and background. Inevitably, in such diverse groups, there will also be individual differences to consider, including the personality, motivation, goals and needs of the team members.

These different team composition factors may impact on your own performance and on that of your team. Understanding them can help during pre-departure preparation and feed into your own group risk assessments (whether they be formal or informal). This type of pre-planning may then help mitigate or manage interpersonal difficulties that arise as individuals become tired and fatigued, when social tensions start to emerge in demanding, challenging or hostile environments.

“When effective teamwork exists, people speak of uplifting experiences and of achievements beyond their expectations. They speak of a synergy that occurs in well-functioning teams that allows them to achieve more than the individuals themselves could have achieved. They speak of the experience as being life-changing and rejuvenating.”

Pamela Lupton-Bowers, Teamwork in Humanitarian Missions, 2003.

When considering team composition issues, it is useful to break these areas down into what are termed surface- and deep-level characteristics. Surface-level characteristics are those attributes or demographic criteria that can typically be observed (think age, gender or race). In contrast, deep-level characteristics are those that are more internal to an individual and are likely to have a more enduring impact on team and group function. Examples of deep-level factors include personality, personal values and motives. Consistent with the complexity of studying teams and groups, there are also a variety of other-related characteristics, including group size, leadership and issues related to cohesion that can impact upon individual performance and health.

Surface-level characteristics

Age / A large age-range between members of a group can be a source of tension, likely related to differing levels of experience. Younger or less experienced group members are likely to be learning how cope with the demands of the environment, whilst older and more experienced members may find the situation routine, or even mundane.

Gender / Mixed-gender teams tend to function harmoniously in extreme environment settings. However, it is worth noting that unconscious biases have been linked to the assignment of gender-stereotyped roles, which can be a source of stress. Single-gender teams tend to have their own challenges. In the past, all-female teams have been observed to be generally emotionally-supportive, however acknowledged that this concern for teammates can be a source of stress. All-male teams have been found to be competitive, sometimes to their detriment, but generally cooperative and functional.

Culture / Understanding culture in teamwork has been the focus of many extreme environment studies. This is particularly relevant to international space crews, which often include members from various nationalities. Issues related to culture can be a source of tension, especially when those differences are more readily observed, such as with language. Culture is often associated with the desire for different types of leadership, adherence to and acceptance of rules, and styles of communication, which can all impact upon group function.     

Deep-level characteristics

Personality / Personality tells us what people are typically like and is linked to how they think, feel and behave. In extreme environments, the personality characteristics of agreeableness (having good interpersonal capacity), openness to experience (staying open-minded) and low neuroticism (emotionally-stable) are thought to be important for good group function over a long-period. Whilst it is not always possible to choose who you work with, trying to find out and understand what a person is like can help figure out how to get the best out of them and what impact they will have upon the larger group. In general, closeness on personality is a good thing but it can also be helpful to have a mix of characters. Encouraging tolerance of individual differences is critical for minimising conflict between members of the group.

Personal values / Whilst personality tells us what people are like, values indicate what they are interested in. Individuals are likely to endorse a variety of different values. In diverse groups, you might have one person that really enjoys new experiences, taking the initiative and going into the unknown. On the other hand you may have someone in the group who appreciates safety and security, is concerned with the welfare of other group members, and likes consistency and routine. Differences in values can be a source of interpersonal tension, especially during prolonged work with the same people, but can also be harnessed and used to celebrate the diversity of the group.

Needs / A person’s needs can be thought of as being complementary or supplementary. Complimentary-fit refers to needs that are different but well-suited. For example, you might have one group member who likes to lead and another that is happy occupying a follower role. Supplementary-fit refers to when you have consistency in group member needs. For example, all group members like to make the most of new experiences, are comfortable with uncertainly and happy operating with flexibility. Understanding a person’s needs can help inform the type of roles they occupy, who they might be asked to work with, and why they might act and behave in a certain way.       

Other-related characteristics

Group size / The larger the group the more productive it is likely to be. However, size also places a strain on resources, particularly if operating in an isolated and remote environment without the possibility of resupply. It may also be relevant to consider how working as part of an even and odd-numbered group might impact upon decision-making. In an even numbered group, there is possibility for decision-making deadlock if you are basing decisions on a group member consensus, and therefore an odd number may be desirable. It is accepted that larger groups (> 6 people) experience fewer problems than small groups. However, in expedition settings it is common to have smaller groups. In these settings, three-person crews tend to work better than two, but there is the possibility for one-person to become truly isolated and alone in the event of disagreements.

Leadership / It is typical for the role of the leader to change during activities in extremes. This is linked to the group adapting and being more comfortable in the environment. Early on, expect the leader to be task-focused and interested in ensuring everyone knows their roles and is completing tasks safely and successfully. Over time, the leader may move into a more social-focused role with the aim of maintaining connection between group members. The ability to both lead and follow is important in small interdependent teams, particularly when made up of a range of highly skilled people. This shifting of roles is a fluid process that can be encouraged during training activities.

Groupthink / A risk to groups that have been through intense shared experiences is groupthink. Groupthink occurs in highly cohesive groups and is reflected by members losing the ability to think critically and not questioning decisions in order to maintain the status quo. Groupthink is linked to poorer team performance and has implications for group safety. Individuals that do question the group can sometimes be ostracised and viewed as trying to break the group down. Trying to maintain objectivity, questioning assumptions and proposing alternative group-based decisions is healthy, when done at the right time in the right way.

How to use this information

Above, we have discussed a few of the issues related to understanding team and group composition in small interdependent teams operating in extreme contexts, such as those faced by expedition and extreme environment medics. The psychology of groups is endlessly complex, but you can use these factors in your medical preparation to raise awareness, engender a sense of tolerance and provide a starting point for diagnosing, discussing and appreciating why people might think, feel and behave in the way that they do. Of course, there are many other strategies that can be applied to enhance group cohesion, resolve conflict and improve task effectiveness. These will all be more effective with an understanding of the roles of surface- and deep-level team composition factors.

If you are interested in learning more about psychology in extreme environments, including identifying stressors, understanding personality, selection and training, monitoring performance and health in extremes, group dynamics, and post-expedition transition, reintegration and readiness then join Nathan at the online school, In Extremis.