Psychology researcher to use grant to improve teamwork across disciplines
CLEMSON — Marissa Shuffler, assistant professor in Clemson’s psychology department, recently became the first behavioral scientist at Clemson to receive the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program grant, often called the NSF CAREER award. Shuffler will use the award to help identify factors and design interventions that will improve teamwork across multiple disciplines.
This continuing grant award of a projected $466,662 over five years will allow Shuffler and a team of doctoral and undergraduate students to conduct five years of research on teamwork in health care and engineering fields. Shuffler said she hopes it will help industries sidestep a cookie-cutter approach to team development interventions and instead use interventions that are tailored to specific team needs.
“When people hear ‘team-building exercise,’ they usually roll their eyes because they see it as a waste of time,” Shuffler said. “This research will help others determine if a team-building exercise should be used at all for a particular team and if any other tools, such as team coaching or training, are needed instead.”
Shuffler said there is good scientific evidence that attempts to describe what makes a team effective, but this research can be challenging to put into practice. Literature and books devoted to teamwork concerns often focus more on hot topics or popular trends when they might better benefit from science and hard data, according to Shuffler.
Much of her research will be rooted in identifying teamwork state profiles, which describe the state of teams based on factors including but not limited to trust, leadership, communication, cohesion and conflict. The first year of the research will seek to better understand these concepts and where they might overlap in separate fields, such as health care and engineering.
Shuffler uses the examples of one team that enjoys great personal interaction and suffers from a lack of productivity and another team that stays on task but whose members don’t get along. Instead of trying to make these teams perfect or only amplify their positive aspects, Shuffler argues that a more focused approach that takes multiple factors into consideration all at once might be the more effective route for an organization seeking to improve teams in both of these profiles.
“The goal shouldn’t be to make teams perfect, but to make them more balanced,” Shuffler said. “A little conflict or distrust can actually be OK in some teams, for example, since without it teammates might not catch each other’s mistakes. If we can identify the balance of factors that helps teams work together, we can better determine the right combination of interventions.”
Shuffler expects that if research can uncover patterns and trends across teams that identify common profiles of the state of teamwork, the likelihood of successfully “diagnosing and treating” teams will improve. Her ultimate goal is to do for teams what a successful physician does for patients when treating them holistically instead of one symptom at a time.
Shuffler and her team will study Clemson engineering students working on capstone projects and teams working in various health care roles at Greenville Health System before research turns to the development of interventions that will be tested in these settings. The grant funding will also be used for educating the broader Clemson community about the science of teamwork, primarily through courses, workshops and other community activities.
Over the past three years, Shuffler has conducted similar research assessing the impact of the Greenville Health System’s “conscious leadership” philosophy on key elements of its organizational culture. According to Tod Tappert, vice president for culture and learning and health system chief learning officer, the NSF CAREER award will allow Shuffler to improve an already valuable collaboration between Clemson and the health system.
“The award will offer the potential for a much deeper dive into questions of value to both our institutions,” Tappert said. “The critical insights that this type of research may provide for leadership, team function and organizational culture are certainly important to pursue.”
The NSF CAREER award is the foundation’s most prestigious award for junior faculty, providing funding to build a foundation for teaching and research excellence. Patrick Raymark, chair of Clemson’s psychology department, said the award is another in a series of impressive accolades for Shuffler in her relatively short time at Clemson, although the CAREER award is “very special in that it provides national-level recognition for her unique and impactful research agenda.”
Eric Muth, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences that is home to the psychology department, sees Shuffler as a trailblazer not just for her department, but her college and the university.
“In receiving this award, Marissa has paved a path for her career, department, our college and Clemson University,” Muth said. “With Marissa’s expertise in the field of leadership and as a leader herself, I am certain she will ensure that she is not the last behavioral scientist to earn such an honor.”