Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 284
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Making Sure

Training. Can they learn it? Will they use it? Does it work? Will it prevail in competition?.

These are four crucial questions we always ask and seldom answer whenever we decide to teach people something new, and that�s too bad. If we could answer these questions, then our investments in training would be made with more confidence, and we�d sleep easier at night.

The United States Air Force recently tried something new. They introduced a new program in team building, and they designed the program so that it gave them answers to these four questions.

Here�s the story.

The USAF recognized a need for greater teamwork, but traditional approaches to encourage teamwork were being frustrated. People were moving in and out of teams too rapidly for the benefits of strong teams to be realized. They needed to achieve strong teams more quickly, so they devised a 5-week training program in transportable teamwork competencies. It was hoped that people completing the program would bring these teamwork competencies to new teams they joined and that these newly formed teams would function as effectively as teams with a well-developed history of teamwork.

Instructors thoroughly researched the topic and settled upon a curriculum that addressed five broad areas: 1) settling conflicts, 2) solving problems collaboratively, 3) effective verbal communication, 4) setting goals and evaluating performance, and 5) planning and coordinating tasks. They reasoned that if members of a team would learn and use transportable teamwork competencies, then strong teams would form more quickly and perform more effectively. But were they right? When human lives are on the line, it�s important to be right, so they made sure.

They presented their course to 1,158 career air force officers in an officer development program. During the first and second week, the officers sat through 40 hours of lecture, and they read hundreds of pages of assigned readings. At the end of the second week, they completed a multiple choice test that emphasized the application of the course content in typical situations. The minimum passing score was 75%. The test answered the instructors� first question: yes, the officers could learn transportable teamwork competencies. But would they use them?

In the final three weeks of the program, the officers continued attending classes, but the greater emphasis was on application. They were formed into teams, and they completed three kinds of team tasks. First, they solved problems. For example, in one problem, each member of a team was given part of a solution to a code. Teams were assigned the task of breaking the code. Teams were timed to record which ones excelled.

A second assignment involved executing a physical task. For example, teams were assigned the task of crossing a river with all of their equipment without touching the water. They were given a rope, a board, and 15 minutes to complete the task. Once again, teams were timed to record which ones excelled.

A third assignment involved field campaigns which pitted two teams at a time in competition with each other in a novel sport. There were winners and losers. There were run-aways and close games. Winning and losing records were noted.

In all of these application exercises, trained observers assigned to each team watched and noted the team�s functioning and individual contributions. The observers were forming recommendations that could influence promotions, and participants knew it. When the program ended, observers were asked if the teams used the skills they had been taught, and the answer was yes. They had used them.

Finally, researchers compared all their data and learned that those teams whose members had scored the best on the multiple choice test stood out as performing the best. The application exercises and the observer ratings were all consistent with the test results, and it answered their third and fourth questions: yes, training in transportable teamwork competencies does lead to superior performance, and yes, this superior teamwork does give an advantage to teams in actual competition with other teams. Training in transportable teamwork competencies is valuable. They are sure.

For business owners and managers, there are two key lessons to be learned from this research. First, effective teamwork can be better achieved by teaching people how to behave as team members. The five broad areas listed above can serve as an outline. Second, any training that employees receive can be enhanced by keeping in mind the principals the USAF instructors followed in evaluating the training and insuring its transfer to the work setting. First, test people. They used a challenging multiple choice test that emphasized application of the learning. Second, insist that people practice the new learning in realistic settings, and third, practice the new learning in competitive situations. Let there be winners and losers. That�s the way it is in business. Let it be that way in training, too. Then you can be sure.

Reference: Hirchfeld, Robert (2006) Becoming Team Players: Team Members� Mastery of Teamwork Knowledge as a Predictor of Team Task Proficiency and Observed Teamwork Effectiveness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91 (2), 467-474.

© Management Resources

Back to home page