The notion of a team mental model was introduced in 1990 to account for the fluid, implicit coordination frequently observed in effective teams and to advance the understanding of how teams function in complex, dynamic, and ambiguous situations. For example, the seemingly effortless execution of a blind pass in basketball illustrates a well-known situation in which team members correctly predict the positioning and readiness of other team members on the court. In contrast, postincident investigations of many catastrophic aviation incidents reveal breakdowns in teamwork, as well as ambiguity with respect to who is responsible for specific tasks. Therefore, both team successes and failures speak to the necessity of being “on the same page” with respect to what to do, with whom, and when to do it.
Team mental models are thus defined as team members’ shared, organized understanding and mental representation of knowledge about key elements of the team’s relevant environment. The general thesis of this emerging literature is that team effectiveness will improve if team members are mentally congruent and have an adequate shared understanding of the task, team, equipment, and situation. Teams whose members share mental models of both task and team variables are expected to have more accurate expectations of team needs and be better positioned to anticipate the actions of other members, as compared with teams whose members do not have a shared mental model.
The Importance and Function of Team Mental Models
At the most basic level, a mental model is a cognitive structure or network of associations between concepts in a person’s mind. The information stored in mental models, which helps to explain and predict events, enables individuals to interact more efficiently with their environment. Having built its foundation on this earlier individual-level research, the current mental model literature has been expanded to incorporate cognitive processes at the team level, thus helping to account for team actions and behaviors. Although cognition is normally thought of at the individual level of analysis, the existence of group-level cognitive structures is receiving widespread acceptance because of the increasing emphasis on teams in research and in organizations.
Team mental models bring explanatory power to team performance by directly affecting team processes and enabling members to formulate accurate teamwork and task work predictions. Individuals involved in teams must devote their efforts not only to completing the task at hand but also to synchronizing their efforts with other team members. Thus, team mental models fulfill multiple purposes, including description, prediction, and explanation. Not surprisingly, team mental models are especially crucial to team functioning in emergency situations because of the way in which they allow team members to anticipate and initiate the exchange of information and required resources when there is not enough time for explicit communication.
The Nature of Team Mental Models
The studies of mental model type and mental model similarity have been at the forefront of some of the earliest work in the team mental model literature. Team members develop multiple mental models to represent their environment, but researchers have primarily focused on two types of mental models. Whereas task-focused mental models include representations of the equipment, procedures, and performance requirements, team-focused models include information about the interpersonal interaction requirements and skills of other team members.
Mental model similarity is defined as the level of congruence across team members’ mental models. Rather than being dichotomous in orientation, mental model similarity is generally measured along a continuum. At one end, team members hold incongruent mental models, in that their mental representations of people, places, and things related to the task at hand are strikingly different from one another’s. At the other end of the continuum, the mental models of each team member are seemingly identical. It is worth noting, however, that the optimal level at which information should be shared among team members remains a prominent focus of the team mental model literature. At present, the consensus seems to be that the degree of information overlap needed for effective team functioning depends on a number of factors, including the nature of the task and the type of mental model in question.
The Measurement of Team Mental Models
The concept of team mental models is undoubtedly complex. It is further complicated by the fact that various researchers have measured the construct in different ways. One of the most common measurement techniques collects relatedness ratings from participants by asking them to provide quick, intuitive judgments regarding the similarity between concept pairs. These judgments, which are individually analyzed via a computerized scaling program, are then graphically transformed to represent the way in which elements are organized within each individual’s mind. The similarity of element structures among each of the team members can then be compared by means of statistical indexes.
Concept mapping, another team mental model measurement technique, requires individuals to select prelabeled concepts that best depict their actions during a task, and then place these concepts in the appropriate rows on a concept map. Respondents are also asked to indicate which concepts depict the actions of their teammates during a task. Given the complexity and multidimensional nature of team mental models, researchers propose that multiple measures are often necessary for thorough assessment.
Research on Team Mental Models
Empirical work on team mental models has substantially lagged behind conceptual development. Nevertheless, the team mental model literature has seen a flurry of activity and research in the last decade. Although many of the studies have engaged team members in computer-based flight/combat simulations, more recent work has begun to investigate how mental models converge in organizational teams performing actual tasks. As this research is still in its formative stages, there is a need for continued conceptual development of the construct and empirical support linking team mental models to antecedents and outcomes.
Research from several studies has provided evidence to suggest that team members can be trained to mentally organize incoming performance-relevant information in such a way as to facilitate the development of mental models that are shared among the majority of team members. Shared mental model training interventions (e.g., self-correction training, computer-based instruction) have shown promise, owing in large part to their ability to foster various teamwork skills, such as monitoring and backup behaviors that allow team members to observe one another’s needs. In addition, team planning has been shown to increase mental model similarity among team members. Because little work has focused on antecedents, researchers have called for more studies to investigate the individual-, team-, and organizational-level variables that contribute to the development of team mental models.
The construct of a team mental model was developed to help explain performance differences between teams. Therefore, a common theoretical assumption is that they are precursors to effective team performance. Indeed, several studies have demonstrated that both shared teamwork and task-work mental models relate positively to team processes and performance. When team members share similar mental models, their interpersonal interactions appear more effective, thus enabling them to perform more successfully.
Although most of the research has been devoted to the degree of sharedness among team member mental models, the quality of teammates’ mental models is another concept that has been examined. Researchers have argued that team mental model similarity alone does not ensure success. They have pointed out that certain mental models may in fact be inaccurate, thus leading to potentially more detrimental (rather than successful) performance. Consequently, most researchers have concluded that highly convergent mental models, in combination with those that are of high quality, will yield the greatest performance benefits for teams.
As a result of an increasingly global marketplace, the formation of teams whose members are often separated, temporally and/or geographically, has instigated a renewed interest in identifying the keys to successful team performance and effectiveness. Given the promising results from a number of team mental model studies, researchers have become increasingly confident that at least one of these keys lies within the team mental model domain. They have argued, first and foremost, that we cannot begin to understand team actions and behaviors until we begin to understand team cognitive processes. Thus, despite its relative infancy, the construct of team mental models has the potential to advance our understanding of work teams, therefore warranting further investigation in coming years.
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