According to a paper published in American Psychologist, it’s not just technology we need to get to grip with in order to survive on Mars. The psychological dynamic of being trapped in a confined space with the same small group of people for months on end is no easy feat. And without teamwork, it just wouldn’t work.

“Teamwork and collaboration are critical components of all space flights and will be even more important for astronauts during long-duration missions, such as to Mars. The astronauts will be months away from home, confined to a vehicle no larger than a mid-sized RV for two to three years and there will be an up to 45-minute lag on communications to and from Earth,” confirms lead author of the paper “Teamwork and Collaboration in Long-Duration Space Missions: Going to Extremes”, Lauren Blackwell Landon.

Phycological research on spaceflight is pretty limited when it comes to the teams. By applying psychology best practices, the authors were able to offer insights as to how NASA can put together the most solid team for long-duration missions. Astronauts that are open to new experiences, resilient, emotionally stable, and agreeable are those most likely to be chosen for these kinds of missions as are the most likely to succeed. A sense of humor is also a very good quality to have in these situations, to help lighten the mood during tense situations.

The 45-minute lag in communications with Earth will mean the crew will need to be quite self-sufficient as no immediate help will be available. Having defined goals, being able to communicate effectively, and build trust with one another are all things which will help in situations of potential conflict. “Successfully negotiating conflict, planning together as a team, making decisions as a team and practicing shared leadership should receive extensive attention long before a team launches on a space mission,” says Landon.

We can learn a lot about interdependence and teamwork from the U.S. military. Regular debriefs are held where teams come together to discuss recent events and learn from one another’s actions. They promote learning and performance across the whole military. Debriefs were first introduced in the U.S. military many decades ago. Since then debriefs have been adopted in various areas including the fire service, health care, education, and aviation industries.

Research has proven that a debrief can improve a team’s performance levels by as much as 25 percent. But, to be the most effective, debriefs must be held where people feel safe and free to speak honestly. Although more and more time is spent collaborating with others, many of us are still unsure as to how to get the most out of a team. Just because the individual team members are all highly skilled, doesn’t mean they’re going to work well as a team. Building a strong team takes time and practice. And as well as regular debriefs, teams should also participate in regular team building exercises too. That way they can determine where their strengths as a team lie and where improvements can be made.

Teamwork has become very popular in the academic setting as prior research has proved that, as a general rule of thumb, teams produce better work. As part of the study, the researchers studied data obtained from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Doctorate Recipients, and the Survey of Earned Doctorates. In doing so, they discovered that those holding degrees in engineering, science, technology, or mathematics earned more money and worked longer hours when working within a team. However, they found no real difference in job satisfaction between those who worked in a team and those who worked alone. 

At the end of the day, the saying “two heads are better than one” didn’t come out of nowhere. In almost any problem-solving situation, it’s great to have a team on board to help spread the load, but if that team are so individually different and unwilling to adapt to one another’s ways, that team will never get past the first hurdle. There’s no ‘I’ in the team, and there never will be.

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