Some teams work together in intense, high-pressure situations. Military teams may face perilous situations as part of their day-to-day working life; medical teams have lives in their hands and must treat each one with the same level of care and expertise. For these teams, having a shared knowledge and language of what must be done, and who is doing what, is essential – life and death, even. And yet shared understanding and knowledge of the team’s processes, expertise, and team members is vital for any thriving team, whatever the stakes.
When I first became a Head of English, earlier in my career than I anticipated, I created what I thought were brilliant schemes of work, processes for Controlled Assessment, and other high expectations of how we would operate as a department. The team were enthusiastic and adhered to what we discussed in meetings. We performed well in terms of accountability measures. And yet, there were inconsistencies galore: in attainment, the way we marked, the way we gave feedback, and the way we thought was the right way to teach and learn English. I neglected to ask the question: how can we work better as a TEAM, and utilise the expertise of everyone to improve the group’s work as a whole?
If a team sets off on a project or task, they must be equipped with team knowledge. TEAM knowledge. Not only do individuals need to know what they are responsible for, and how they will carry out certain decisions or pieces of work, they must also understand how the wider team will do the same.
We know that productive teams self-correct, are adaptable, flexible, and cohesive. Their amassed knowledge means that they can follow a process flawlessly, but also adapt as necessary by drawing upon this knowledge and collective experience to make changes when needed. Step forth, mental models.
James Clear states that a ‘mental model is an explanation of how something works; it is an overarching term for any sort of concept, framework, or worldview that you carry around in your mind’. We have these for all sorts of things in life and at work. However, Team Mental Models (TMM; also known as shared) are defined as team members’ shared, organised understanding and mental representation of knowledge about key elements of the team’s relevant environment. Team Mental Models support team members in making sense of the team and the team task. They describe why the team exists, what things look like currently, and what has to be achieved in terms of the future state of the team. In other words, TMM help members understand how things relate to each other; individual strands become interwoven.
Types of TMM and their benefits
Mental models can be categorised in different ways, for example as being task-related or team-related – both are important and have positive effects on teamwork. Whereas task mental models depict what the team must do in terms of aims, logistics, equipment, etc. teamwork mental models denote how the team should work together – defining roles, how people like to work, etc.
There are countless reasons, supported by research, regarding why we should develop our team mental models. Firstly, unique knowledge within a team can often be lost, leading to reduced efficiency and performance; those who possess unique expertise should share information that is critical for the team’s effort (known as transactive memory). This communication must be clear and understandable, and avoid jargon or anything that makes it less accessible (Ervin et al., 2018).
Team mental models, then, increase team knowledge. A team with a critical level of knowledge is able to adapt; this skill has been deemed “one of the few universally effective group strategies” (Driskell et al., 2018) because it modifies the team’s actions to be as efficient and functional as possible. Knowledge created and optimised by team mental models unlocks creativity and adaptability.
Cannon-Bowers and Salas (1990) speak of the unspoken communication a high-performing team can harness, commenting that ‘they can often coordinate their behaviour without the need to communicate” (Cannon-Bowers & Salas, 2001). Expert teams develop compatibility in members’ cognitive understanding of key elements of their work and performance, and, by doing so, are able to operate efficiently, without the need for overt communication, and hence perform tasks more effectively.
All in all, team effectiveness will improve if team members are mentally congruent and have a shared understanding of the task, team, environment, 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 can anticipate the actions of other members, compared with teams where mental models are less accurate or strong. Can you say this about your teams? It certainly prompts reflection on how we lead our teams and what everyone knows, and what the effects of this knowledge are.
Teams with accurate and effective Team Mental Models will operate smoothly, with satisfaction, cohesion; performance will improve. Team cognition will rise to a point where team members are equipped to make good decisions for the team, can predict common outcomes, and can contribute more meaningful ideas to the group.
So now that you are equipped with a mental model of what a mental model is (not sure that works but thanks for sticking with me!), let’s discuss how we can improve these within our teams. How do we actually optimise our Team Mental Models so that they add value to our team work, and don’t just add to workload?
Here are 7 evidence-informed ways to improve Team Mental Models and their effectiveness in your team:
Thinking like a (healthy) team: to start with, it’s a good idea to explore the team’s values, processes, and remit. This should centre around how the team actually works together, and whether or not at this point there is a culture of genuine team work and sharing. You could discuss some open questions as a group, such as: ‘how much do we share as a team?’ ‘Do our processes encourage and incentivise team work?’ ‘Do we take what we learn as a team and use it in tomorrow’s plans?’. The point is, your team needs to start thinking like a team, before it can begin developing team mental models.
Role clarity: A major aspect of team mental models is understanding who does what and when. A lot of this is about role clarity – it’s very easy for team members to assume they know what the role and responsibilities’ of other team members are, without gaining that insight. So the focal point here is ensuring that the team understands team roles, their overlap, how and when they work together, and which other members from other teams are often incorporated in team tasks. Importantly, this is the time to identify gaps, too.
Sharing expertise within the team – team learning is a vital part of a thriving team, and what better way to increase the knowledge of the group than by regularly asking team members, or those from another related team, to present on an area of their remit or expertise. Functionally, this could be a 5-10 ‘in the hot seat’ portion of a meeting where the team member explains their role, their key knowledge and processes, how they work with other team members, and conclude with a discussion with the team about how others can better use this knowledge. An example could be a counsellor coming to a Head of Year meeting (all part of the wider pastoral team but not the core Head of Year team) to discuss how they take referrals, how they differ from other services, and how they’d like the team to work with them in the future; this will then prompt a discussion. Or someone within a department feeding back on a project they have been working on – it sounds obvious, but the focus of the discussion should be on how the team can use this knowledge to improve their work together.
Modelling best practice: it’s not just about sharing individual expertise for the greater good of the team; it’s also important to model what excellent team work looks like in this particular team. This could involve scenarios of ideal teamwork in the team being created and agreed by team members, who then share those exemplars to the team and discuss how close they are to this in day-to-day practice.
Evaluations and Debriefs – regular team debriefs, if managed well, can improve team effectiveness by 20-25%. I blogged in more depth about debriefs here. These reviews are the perfect opportunity to establish and consolidate team mental models. They need to focus on shared accountability for how to improve a process or aspect of the team’s work: everyone has a voice, a no blame culture, and an honest discussion about how to move things forward as a group. These reviews can also evaluate how mental models have been applied in the past.
Cross-team collaboration: in many organisations, schools included, the communication and teamwork between teams can sometimes be lacking. In schools, this could be a lack of dialogue between academic and pastoral staff, or different approaches being implemented unwittingly between key stages or phases. Every team has overlap with other teams – to keep a sense of organisational cohesion, and to improve mental models across teams, opportunities should be created for teams, or members or teams, to meet to improve the shared knowledge between these groups.
Building TMM on a foundation of psychological safety: Team Mental Models, by definition, are a form of team sharing. Yes, this can often be detail or process focused, but also involves staff sharing how they feel about aspects of work – what is working well or not, for example. Creating cohesive team mental models that make a team more efficient and productive, will involve team members being honest and open with each other. Otherwise the mental model will be inaccurate, and this will actually hinder team performance. So, as I write in most of my blogs, it seems, the foundation of all these conversations and ideas is that the team has a culture of psychological safety.
Further, management website CG Net have created the useful graphic below about how to launch and maximise team mental models:
Of course, all teams have processes and knowledge shared between them already. You might be wondering, is the term Team Mental Models just adding a name to things that already exist? But deliberately considering and discussing a team’s mental models is a step beyond what most teams will carry out. The real gains are made when a team actively questions the way it shares knowledge; the way it works together; the way that things overlap. How do we use our knowledge to enhance our team work?
For my work with teams this year, that will be the key question: so, how do we use xyz (whatever we’ve just been looking at) to improve our work together as a team? This was a question that I neglected as a HOD, but aspire to achieve now as a leader of other teams.
With this blog post, I have reduced the number of academic papers referred to, in the hope that the writing will be more accessible and less dense. If you’d like to explore Team Mental Models with me further, I have a huge bank of papers that kept me busy for weeks in the run up to writing this. I’m very happy to share any time!
Thank you for reading
Cannon-Bowers, J.A. and Salas, E. (1990) Cognitive Psychology and Team Training: Shared Mental Model in Complex System. The 5th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology, Miami, FL, 1-4. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/showciting?cid=2451472
Driskell JE, Salas E, Driskell T. Foundations of teamwork and collaboration. Am Psychol. 2018 May-Jun;73(4):334-348. doi: 10.1037/amp0000241. PMID: 29792452.
Ervin JN, Kahn JM, Cohen TR, Weingart LR. Teamwork in the intensive care unit. Am Psychol. 2018 May-Jun;73(4):468-477. doi: 10.1037/amp0000247. PMID: 29792461; PMCID: PMC6662208.
Mathieu JE, Heffner TS, Goodwin GF, Salas E, Cannon-Bowers JA. The influence of shared mental models on team process and performance. J Appl Psychol. 2000 Apr;85(2):273-83. doi: 10.1037/0021-9010.85.2.273. PMID: 10783543.
Salas, E, and Cannon-Bowers, J (2001) The Science of Training. Annual Review of Psychology.