Building Effective Teams

Operator Training Podcast: Remove Team Performance Barriers

March 15, 2024
Psychological safety is crucial for effective team environments, allowing individuals to speak up and admit uncertainty without fear of reprisal. Tools such as self-assessment guides and realistic teaming scenarios aid in developing teamwork skills. Continuous learning and improvement are essential for optimal team performance.


Today, we're talking about the biggest barriers to team performance. And I know you have just worked on research in this area, so I am prepared to grill you with many questions. Can you tell me briefly about your research?

Dave: Well, certainly. One of the major thrusts in both medicine and aerospace is around what they call crew resource management, but that's just a fancy word for team training. It stems from several incidents where the individuals might have been adequately trained at their job and knew what they were doing, but they didn't function as a team. We've all seen this in sports where the better team will often go out over the better collection of athletes.

The Center for Operator Performance said we want to look at this in more detail because there are all sorts of teams within the process plants. We think of the obvious team of the operating crews, and indeed, they are a team, but there are other teams as well. Operations and maintenance form teams to get specific work done, as well as technical, maintenance, and operations.

So the center said, "Well, let's try to understand how we can get better teaming at our facilities. How do we capitalize on the fact that we may have competent individuals, but now we want extremely high-performance teams simultaneously?"

Traci: And that's a great point because you think about it, we're very siloed, and I know exactly how to do my job, and it doesn't occur to me that I have to do my job with you as well. So the team training, as opposed to individual training, is super important, so I'm glad you brought that up. Can you share some examples of common barriers that teams encounter when trying to work together effectively?

Dave: Yes. So, the research that Scott Tannenbaum and Eduardo Salas did, they're two of the top people in this area of team training. Hence, they did a survey of over 280 operations and maintenance personnel trying to understand, well, what were some of the things that would tend to get in the way of forming a good team or inhibit team performance. From the survey, they came out with 16 different characteristics that were cited as this can get in the way, but five of them came out as being a significant risk to having that done.

Two of them, fatigue and workload, were at the top of the list. And as you can imagine, hey, I'm tired. Teaming requires some effort and some energy. Just let me do my job. I don't want to have to deal with these other people. That is a significant barrier. And, of course, the real fear here is that during turnarounds, you're going to have a high workload. That was part of the Texas City event that was occurring during this high workload period. And so, you have to be very sensitive to that particular period because that can get in the way.

Two of the others relate to it; one was competing or shifting priorities, and there was conflicting information in different sources. So, if I'm a team, what you have is you have a group of individuals who are trying to accomplish a common goal. That's the basic definition of when a team exists, but achieving a common goal is difficult if that goal is constantly moving. And so that's where if you have competing priorities, or I'm talking to different people and getting different information, that makes it very difficult for a team to function.

This is a management type of issue. Are the teams getting consistent input as to what the priority is, different parts of the organization, and are they getting the same information where yes, we understand what we need to do and what needs to happen? So those two matches together. And then the final one of these top barriers was the lack of technical expertise. In the case that we were looking at, which was the teaming of maintenance and operations, you have a case where this is what they would call dynamic teaming in terms of maintenance showing up to get some work done.

They're working with operations to do it safely. So, you have this dynamic team. The team forms to accomplish this task. So, as I said, teams exist to achieve a goal. So, this goal might be to isolate a line, replace a pump, whatever. So, they form a team to do that, and then that team disbands when the goal is achieved, as opposed to a static team like the crew itself. But in this dynamic teaming between operations and maintenance, do we have the appropriate technical expertise to ensure that we are doing that safely and can accomplish that goal?

A personal example: I was with an operator, and we were walking by a maintenance craft worker who was grinding away some rust on a cooling water line that they dug out below the surface of the ground. It looked pretty rusty. And I looked at my operator and I said, "I'm not sure how thick a metal is underneath there." The operator shrugged his shoulders. He says, "Well, I'm guessing they've x-rayed it, and there's certainly enough to warrant grinding away the rust." And so we moved on, and we were out in the unit.

And as we returned to the control room, of course, there was this just stream of water pouring out of this pipe. Because no, there wasn't enough metal underneath that rust to do it. There's a case where there is this trust of, well, I'm hoping somebody has done the x-rays to make sure there's enough metal underneath there, but that input from the engineering or the technical group is this something we really can do, tends to be a barrier. So here, in the case, I just gave you, that team...

And you could say, well, they failed to achieve their goal, but part of that barrier, the risk to doing that effectively, do they have the appropriate expertise to say, yes, here's how much metal there is underneath that rust and it's safe to grind the rust away.

How To Improve Team Performance

Traci: What are some of the warning signs you can identify to get in front of that so that someone feels that they can go, okay, did someone x-ray this or the blind faith going into that?

Dave: Well, some of it is an ongoing commitment in which after major events, major teaming exercises, you do a debrief. This is critical within the military. We need to learn from what we have done. And that's a key part of team training is, have we learned? As you go through major events or even minor events, you need to be able to do a self-assessment and say, "How did we function as a team, and are there ways that we can get better?" One of the outputs from this research was a checklist that can be done quickly to look at, how did we do? Are there problems with making that happen?

And it just goes down the basic characteristics of good teaming and looks at did we have a shared understanding. Did we all understand what we were supposed to be doing? Did we have good communication? Did people have the right updates to know what was happening at the right time? Did they have good psychological safety during this? Did people feel they could speak up and question what would happen? Did they get the technical support in this case, but other support as well as did somebody have my back kind of thing?

Did we connect with people outside our team? The example I use, well, they didn't connect with the technical group here. It resulted in a minor incident. There's a lot of water around, but obviously, that could have been far worse. This was a cooling water return line, not the cooling water intake. But that's what you want to learn from and say, hey, we didn't do a good job of connecting outside the team. And are we learning and thinking ahead of what's going to happen?

So, these debriefings are essential in a wide range of applications, but in this case, with team training to go through and assess, how did we do as a team? Again, we tend to focus on individuals. Well, how did the individual do in this activity? And not thinking about, well, how did the team do? That's where the Center for Operator Performance, as part of this research, is a quick checklist. So that as you go through regularly, do these debriefs and use that to say, "Hey, we need to get better."

And here's a case where my operator and I, we both thought, this looks suspicious. We should have returned later and said, "We should have raised that concern because it looks suspicious to us, and we just accepted that, well, somebody must know what they're doing." But those are the kinds of things you want to learn from. Not in a finger-pointing or blame way, but just, hey, yeah, next time, let's raise the question to ensure that we get the necessary information to perform that task or achieve that common goal safely.

Importance Of Psychological Safety

Traci: Making an example of yourself and giving that psychological safety to those on a rung or two below the ladder saying, "Okay, I feel now empowered because even my higher-ups kind of miss something." that's interesting. Let's talk a little bit about you did mention psychological safety. Let's talk more about that and its importance in team environments.

Dave: I don't know if I can pick out one area that is the most critical, but it is certainly near the top, that ability to feel that I can speak up and point out that something seems wrong or admit that I don't know something. I'm not sure. We've had cases; one of the most famous incidents that began this focus on team training and crew resource management was a flight out of Washington National Airport, and there was an instrument malfunction in the cockpit.

And the pilot was taking an action that the co-pilot thought was wrong. In the hierarchy of their military training background, the captain's always right, and you don't question the captain. The result was that the plane ended up in the Potomac River because the captain was wrong, but the co-pilot didn't feel he had the psychological safety to say, "Hey, I think we should be doing something different." And so that began that look into, well, okay, how does the team function to make that happen?

So, that ability to speak up to admit that you're wrong. One of the things that used to occur, most planes have changed, is maintenance would often come in, and they would have a permit. And, of course, the operator would say, "Well, do you know where this is?" And the maintenance would say, "Oh, yeah, yeah, I know." And the operators would often gauge whether they were telling the truth. If they were like, "Uh, yeah, I know," they would say, "Well, I don't think they know."

I wish they would've just said, "No, I don't. I'm not sure where this is at." Now, most planes require that operations walk down the job site with maintenance, but it wasn't too long ago that you trusted maintenance to tell you that, hey, I don't know something, or I'm not sure about this. I was at a plant where, during the time that I was there, maintenance was out cutting into what turned out to be a live hydrocarbon line, and they were caught before they went through it, but they got their lines mixed up.

And so, they were supposed to be cutting through a deadline. Instead, they were cutting through a live line. And fortunately, an operator was walking by and it's like, "What are you doing?" "I have this permit to cut through this line." He's like, "Well, that's not the right line." It would've been far better for the maintenance to say, "I don't know where that is, or I don't know something." And that's a part of psychological safety that I can say those things and I won't be ridiculed.

I won't be punished that, hey, you didn't know where this was. Psychological safety says, "Yeah, that is something that we have. I feel I can speak up." And it starts from the top down. Those plants that have good psychological safety, it's because the management and the organization have set it up so that this isn't this blame game. There's an effort in the industry called Human and Organizational Performance. And a large part of that is that, well, let's learn from what we're doing.

So instead of saying, well, let's blame somebody who made a mistake, let's try to find out what we need to do to improve things. And those organizations that are successful at that, it's because upper management says, "Yes, we want to learn. We want to get better. Our goal is not to just blame." And there's a phrase, blame and retrain. You didn't know what you were going to do, and we're going to retrain you as an individual. In this case, HOP is saying, "No, we want to learn; well, why is it that this didn't go the way we thought?"

And if management has that view, that approach, that provides that psychological safety and it permeates down through the organization. So individuals can think, yeah, that doesn't seem right, where my operator or I could go, "Hey, that doesn't look good what you're doing there. Are you sure that this is correct?" That's not going to prevent all mistakes or something. Yeah, I'm sure. But you want that ability to question, is this the right thing to do? Or be able to say, I don't know how to do this, or I'm unsure.

I haven't done this in three years, so I need some support to make that happen. And that can be done without a feeling of retribution or people will think less of me. But instead, they're going actually to think better. Hey, it's better to say I'm not sure than to go in not really knowing what you're doing and then make some mistakes with a whole wide range of consequences.

How To Be A Better Team Member

Traci: And you're talking about management down, and that's how you foster these types of great team environments. Going back to your sports analysis, we've seen great individual players on a team that doesn't shine under a bad coach, and then the coach gets fired.

Then, next year, the team will do great because there's a new management in place to foster that. From the bottom up, how can team members become good team members? What constitutes that? How can they be a better team member and unlearn some of the bad things that they learned from the bad hierarchy of top-down, don't question?

Dave: You would like management to be supportive. You might end up in a situation where our management and our coach don't have it, but hey, we still want to win. And so these teams, they want to be safe. They want to make sure that the jobs are getting done. So there's really these six key areas that individuals can do at the lower level to make sure that, yeah, we're going to function as a team. The first one is shared understanding. Do we all understand what we're going to do?

And that's more than just saying, do we all understand and have everybody nod? Have people state what it is we're going to be doing and make sure that you are on the same page. And we've seen that repeatedly where everybody will say, "Yeah, I know what to do," and then you say, "Well, write down what it is you think you're going to do," the answers aren't the same. Don't just assume that shared understanding, but articulate it. Communications get hammered in all sorts of situations, but are we providing updates of what's occurring?

One of the critical things the military has done is repeat back what you've heard. This is very important in the high-noise environments occurring in these plants when some information goes back and forth. And you're like, "Did he say the B pump or the D pump? I couldn't quite hear." Repeat back, "I heard you say," or repeat back. And I've been to a refinery that was staffed mostly with ex-Navy personnel and they were excellent at always repeating back, "This is what I heard you say. Am I correct in that?"

The psychological safety, yeah, it'd be great if you were supported by everyone that was part of the team and the organization. Still, a lot of it is just speaking up and bringing it up that this doesn't seem right and the ability to say, "I'm not sure what is going on there." Supporting each other, you need to think of yourselves as a team. And again, using that sports analogy, we've all seen it where the superstars are just concerned with themselves and their stats. But you want to make sure that, hey, I need to help other people.

One of the key things is that I need to hold others accountable. You didn't do that right. You should have taken them out and shown them the job site to prevent bad behaviors from continuing. You need to be able to communicate outside the team, well, who else might want to know something about this so that they can be prepared and they can hopefully, getting back to that speaking up, they can say, "Well, wait a minute, I didn't approve that. Why are you doing this?"

And so, head off some of those misunderstandings or lack of shared understandings. And then finally trying to say, hey, learning from the team's experience. And so if you have an organization that isn't good at that, as an individual just trying to bring that up, "Hey, we just did this major isolation." Hopefully, the shift lead, the head operator, would say, "Hey, let's see what we could have done better."

If you're not in that position, that's speaking up again, suggesting, hey, can we do a quick five, 10-minute review of what we did because it could have gone better? So those are the things, as an individual, you can try to build and have it move up the organization. And ultimately, if you're a member of that team, you will be subjected to whatever results that team has. Win or lose, you're going to be part of it. So if you don't want to exhibit these behaviors, you don't want to be a good teammate, as it were, and you will have to face the consequences potentially.

And as we've seen, those can be quite severe sometimes. It'd be nice if plant managers on down all of this were there, but certainly, individuals can do what is necessary. And that's part of this effort that the center put together was being able to create what is the sort of behaviors that you want to see so it can be used at any particular level, whether it's down at the people who are part of the game level or if it's at a managerial level that says, "We want to be better at this aspect of what we're doing."

You're saying, "We need a different coach because we know our people know what to do, but they're not doing it well together." So either direction, there are ways to build that skill in functioning as a team.

Tools To Create Effective Teams

Traci: Are there any tools that folks can use to get started to create effective teams?

Dave: There are. One of the goals of this particular research that the center did is we wanted to create a blueprint for how to implement this kind of team training activity. So, the researchers went through and created several different tools that an individual or an organization can apply to explain to the higher-ups why this is important. Being able to survey the organization, how good are we at teaming with this? Self-assessment guides that's what I was talking about.

As you get done with some particular activity going, how did we do as a team? So down at the team level. Looking at, well, how do we build this psychological safety? While it's very important for team training, it's important on a wide range of topics, including human and organizational performance. And so training on, well, how do we get psychological safety and carrying through some exercises in practicing that. How do you do that? Again, functioning as a team is a skill like any other skill, and skills get better with practice.

And so part of that is to have exercises, realistic scenarios of teaming activities that the group can perform and say, how did we do in this particular scenario? What would we have done? How could we have gotten better? So, the ability to practice teaming skills is essential to both building and maintaining those skills. As part of this project, a number of different scenarios have been created that you can use as training material to teach a team to be a good team so that it isn't something that...

As we sort of talked about, I can't just put a bunch of people together and say, "Now go work as a team," because it's a skill and they need to learn, well, what is that skill? We discussed Those different things in terms of communication, speaking up, and shared understanding.

So, unless they understand and have been trained that that's important, you probably are not going to be getting the performance that you would like from the teams that you have, whether it's a static team like a crew or it's a dynamic team, a group of individuals that get together for a purpose, for some activity and then dissolve after that activity. So whether it's a static or a dynamic team, they still need the skill set necessary to maximize their performance.

How To Use Teaming Scenarios

Traci: Let's go back to what you're talking about, the teaming scenarios. Can you explain that? Are they like little vignettes you walk through, or do you go and do a team-building exercise, and trust falls? What are those?

Dave: Well, no, no, we don't do the trust falls. I often laugh at the various things people think will promote teaming, but these are realistic exercises that depict a situation. You're putting the person in that environment. You're describing what is going to happen. As you go through this scenario, where would psychological safety be important?

The scenario might have somebody bringing up some issue of, "I don't know where that is," and you can talk about what's a good way to respond to that, what's a bad way to have responded to that, so you can focus on some different aspects of what makes a good team as you're going through that. There's some key questions that you can ask in terms of, in this particular scenario, what could have gone wrong? Are you thinking ahead? Where is it that you might have needed more information?

So, these are little group exercises. It can be done very quickly. We often talk about toolbox talks and those sorts of things. This could fit into that category where it's very, hey, I'm going to give you a scenario. And rather than just saying, "Do you all understand what psychological safety is? Yeah, yeah, yeah, we understand," put it into context. And that's the whole purpose of the scenario is context. And so, in this context, if this pipe fitter is coming in during a turnaround and they show up in a half hour before shift change and they're unsure about this or that, how do you respond?

How should the team function in that environment? Take the team through, so they understand where those potential pitfalls work. Do we have that shared understanding? Are we communicating with the right people? Ask them if you thought they seemed hesitant or unsure, but they didn't bring it up. This would be the psychological safety. Hey, are you sure? Do you need some help in this area? Holding others accountable means letting me help you out there.

Let me make sure that we get this right. And so these scenarios are very easy short training exercises. But the whole goal, though, is to reinforce what are those skills. What skillset do you want to have to develop those teamwork skills and become a good team member?

Traci: Dave, is there anything you want to add? We've covered a lot of ground today.

Dave: No, it's an area that a lot of people know is important, but oftentimes it's like, well, but what do I do? What is it that needs to occur? The defense and aviation community understands the value of that. The medical community certainly has in terms of how your surgical team functions. And I think that's something in our industry that we're now moving in that direction.

But a key part of a lot of this is that ability to move from just, hey, we've got well-trained individuals, to, we have well-trained individuals on a well-trained team. And I'm looking forward to seeing how this evolves over the next few years.

Traci: Well, Dave, as always, you are here to help us ensure that we're on the same page as teams and with our operator training and ensuring that everything works well and people can go home at the end of their shift happy and healthy. Want to stay on top of operator training and performance? Remember to subscribe to this free podcast via your favorite podcast platform to learn best practices and keen insight.

You can also visit us at for more tools and resources aimed at helping you achieve success. On behalf of Dave, I'm Traci, and this is Chemical Processing's Distilled Podcast Operator Training Edition. Thanks for listening. Thanks again, Dave.

Dave: I appreciate it. Thank you, Traci.

About the Author

Traci Purdum | Editor-in-Chief

Traci Purdum, an award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering manufacturing and management issues, is a graduate of the Kent State University School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Kent, Ohio, and an alumnus of the Wharton Seminar for Business Journalists, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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