Every team needs such a person

Leadership lessons: it happens quite often that advances of the military industry become eventually part of our civilian life. This time it is behavioral psychology of successful teams. The latest discoveries might teach you a thing or two as a leader of an enterprise.

NASA explores the group cohesion for their crewed mission to Mars. The finding: if the team wants to be successful, a certain character type must form part of it.

The benefits of space missions for people on Earth aren‘t often immediately recognizable. But when on Sunday during the AAAS annual meeting in Washington the scientists presented their findings concerning NASA mission to Mars, it quickly became clear that they can improve our everyday lives.

NASA plans to fly its first crew on a 400 million km journey to Mars in 2033. One of the biggest challenges of this mission is human factor, because three years long, day and night, the astronauts will have to live and work together in a confined space. To make it work, NASA explores not only the Space, but also the human psychology.

Every team needs a clown

Anthropologist Jeffrey Johnson from the University of Florida in Gainesville spent four years studying dynamics in small groups of 10 to 28 people of the over winter crews in Antarctica and examined the old documents of the South Pole expeditions.

“Everyone knows what happens in teams. Teams tend to assign its members informal roles, one is a leader, another — a buddy and yet another — a clown”, says Johnson. His research shows that the success of the whole team is determined by how these informal vacancies are filled.

Johnson reports that clowns, storytellers and comedians play a special role in this. It was proven a hundred years ago. Roald Amundsen, the first human who made it to the South Pole, would have probably never managed if it hadn’t been for his humorous cook.

“Adolf Lindstrøm was a rugged type, childish and impartial, he laughed a lot and cooked well,”- explains Johnson. “Everyone liked him.” “Whenever there was a problem during the expedition to the permanent ice, crew members argued or Amundsen lost his patience, Lindstrøm would dissolve the tensions and encourage the group to move on. “He has rendered greater and more valuable services to the Norwegian polar expedition than any other man,” Amundsen noted in his diary.

It is the mix.

Just how important a person with a sense of humor is for the small group dynamics, is demonstrated by the present-day exhibitions to the South Pole. Over the years Johnson has collected data of 15 different over winter Antarctic research crews composed of various nationalities. The group that coped best had as many as four people occupying the crucial informal roles.

“Three women took care of events — organized joint dinners or sports trainings”, says Johnson. But also this group clustered around a core person who was a “funny clever type that liked to tell stories”. In that case it was a workman who held the group together. “He acted as a link between the scientists and the rest of the group.”

In comparison, the expedition team with the least cohesion lacked precisely this function, reports Johnson. The problem is that groups tend to split into sub-groups as homogeneous as possible. Under the motto “Birds of a feather flock together”, scientists would hang around with other scientists, Russians with Russians, Americans with Americans. “That’s why, clowns and storytellers are needed — they manage it with humor to unite the sub-groups into one big team.”

Informal leader and formal boss must match

However, it was not clear until now, if the clowns can raise the morale of four to six member crews on Mars missions. In its Johnson Space Center in Houston NASA is monitoring the groups in a simulator that recreates the conditions on Mars. The test candidates must endure lack of sleep, movement arousal and delays in communication to the outer world, for as long as 45 days together. The first data records support the findings from the South Pole expeditions, says Johnson.

Another success criterion equally valid for all group sizes is: “the informal allocation of roles must match the official functions”, according to Johnson. “The official leader must also be recognized as such informally. If he doesn’t manage to master this role, it will inevitably lead to conflicts.”

During the NASA-experiment the informal role allocation in two groups deviated from the official one. Subsequently, at the end of the experiment the group members reported their unwillingness to spend three years together on a mission to Mars.



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