Psychology professor’s research for NASA and Greenville Health System showing new trend in leadership and team dynamics
As an industrial/organizational psychologist, Dr. Marissa Shuffler uses psychological principles to improve work environments. Her applied research in the field has its focus in leadership, team development and organizational effectiveness. Shuffler teaches undergraduate and graduate level courses in Clemson’s College of Business and Behavioral Science (CBBS). She sought out Clemson because of the University’s sterling reputation as both an academic and research institution. “The students I teach, advise, and mentor are very committed — this makes my job very satisfying,” says Shuffler. “I am also fortunate to be part of a department that is completely supportive of my research. Since coming here I have met other Clemson faculty who share my interest in the area of leadership research and this makes for a very stimulating work environment.” Shuffler’s current research has made Clemson the center of several fascinating major studies.
A grant from NASA is funding Shuffler’s research into how we address leadership, followership and teamwork in autonomous environments. In addition, she is conducting two research projects for Greenville Health System (GHS) — one examines the current state of leadership development and how to assess leadership in healthcare, and the other studies the unique leadership challenges associated with developing effective leadership-subordinate relationships in the healthcare industry.
Shuffler’s current research represents a growing recognition of the concept of shared or collective leadership. This non-traditional approach, which has emerged in the past 10 years, is no longer just about the single leader, but about the multiple numbers of people taking leadership roles and responsibilities. Shuffler says, “We see the concept embraced by NASA, which I believe has a lot to do NASA’s identity as a scientific institution that has always implemented interdisciplinary teams. I see it within GHS’s strategic plan. Simply put, organizations today are changing and becoming less hierarchical. Leadership today is not just about developing the single leader. It’s about shaping teams…it’s about progress.”
Helping NASA Plan Future Missions
In planning for its proposed 2030 “Mission to Mars” program, NASA officials have asked Shuffler and psychologists from the University of Central Florida to look at the effect prolonged assignments have on space crews, specifically the leadership and followership dynamics. The Mission to Mars would be at the least a 36-month deployment in space. NASA is particularly concerned with the effects of isolation in space. Members of the space crew would be cut off from family, friends and day-to-day life on earth for what is now considered to be an unprecedented amount of time. It is predicted that telecommunication from the manned space station in Mars to earth, be it to ground control or to family members, would have a 40-minute delay. This time lag would add to the space crew’s sense of isolation. It could potentially be challenging to the crew, particularly if something on board the space station malfunctioned and it took 40 minutes to communicate the emergency situation to ground control on earth. The long range purpose of Shuffler’s research is to look at the dynamics of how a team functions in autonomous, high-stress situations so that ultimately crew members would be able to learn how to rely upon each other and best function as a cohesive team of leaders.
Shuffler’s methodology for the NASA’s “Leadership and Followership in Autonomous Environments” project takes a multi-prong approach with two separate streams of research going on simultaneously. The first stream is qualitative. Under Shuffler’s direction, the qualitative research is managed by two graduate students and enlists help from a creative inquiry team that Shuffler herself formed. The creative inquiry team is comprised of five undergraduate students. Shuffler and her students are collecting data that is drawn from historical examples of how leaders and followers performed in high stress, isolated environments.
“We’re looking at sources that describe situations that most closely resemble what the Mission to Mars experience would be like,” says Shuffler. “The examples that we are investigating are ones where team members are isolated, and physically challenged. Arctic exploration expeditions closely parallel Mission to Mars, as do round-the-world sailboat racing where participating crews can be at sea for a year or longer.” They’re also gathering recent accounts from the International Space Station, as well as from Russian space missions. In all cases, they’re looking at how people have endured isolation, extreme fatigue, strenuous conditions, the likelihood of physical danger, and limited communication to people beyond the mission. “It is our goal to collect a series of 200 unbiased written sources,” says Shuffler. “Once this goal is met we will be able to analyze how leaders emerge in the face of isolation and danger.”
The second stream of Shuffler’s NASA research takes a quantitative approach. Following the same protocol she used to form her qualitative research team, Shuffler heads a group of three graduate students and a creative inquiry team of six undergraduates. The quantitative study has two sides. The first side of research takes place in Shuffler’s on-campus lab. Clemson students are recruited to take part in simulated scenarios that resemble situations encountered during shorter space missions. Shuffler and her researchers monitor student reactions to these computer-generated space missions. “We look at the role that personality traits play in leadership emergence,” says Shuffler. “But what we are doing in our research goes beyond the study of leadership. We are focusing on how the typical concept of leadership might change as crews move further away from earth. This is a key issue that NASA is interested in exploring. Our research will ultimately help NASA best utilize the strengths of everyone on a mission.”
The second side of the quantitative study takes place at NASA’s test simulation facility in Houston. Subjects, who match many of the qualities (i.e. age, educational background) of actual astronauts, spend 14 uninterrupted days in a space capsule-like environment. Specially designed for research and training purposes, the space capsule, officially known as the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) mirrors the cramped quarters of a space capsule. Shuffler and her Clemson students as well as research teams from seven other top universities, measure metrics to access the psychological reactions to the environment. “The quantitative data that we are capturing is giving us the chance to look at team and leadership dynamics on board a lengthy mission,” says Shuffler. Every day the research team from Clemson and the other university teams, teleconference with NASA to go over recent findings and any challenges. Although the funding for this side of the project ends in September 2015, Clemson has submitted a proposal to NASA to ensure that research in this area will continue for a longer period of time.
“Because of our relationship with NASA, we received a secondary line of funding from NASA that began in December 2014, and will run until this August,” says Shuffler. “This research looks at the successes and failures of multi-team systems, and will be used by NASA to better understand how each individual on a space mission is responsible for a different area of the mission, but how ideally the crew will, as different situations emerge over the course of the mission, function as a cohesive system.” The data for this research project will be gathered from a literature review of Arctic missions and through a series of interviews that Shuffler will conduct with NASA astronauts and other personnel. She hopes to have Clemson students be present to observe these interviews.
Studying Leadership and Teamwork in Today’s Healthcare Systems
Through a seed grant from Greenville Health System (GHS), Shuffler and a student research team are charged with looking at the system and its employees in terms of the current state of leadership development and how to best assess effective leadership behaviors in healthcare. As South Carolina’s largest public, not-for-profit academic healthcare delivery system, GHS is home to more than 11,000 employees. “GHS provides an amazing culture for organizational learning,” says Shuffler. “Our research will help GHS better convey its leadership mission goals to develop leaders at all levels. GHS wants to make a difference from its high-level management at the top of the organization all the way down. Part of our methodology was to survey all of GHS’s leadership and management staff on the issue of leadership. We received more than 500 responses from a field study of 800 leadership/management employees.” Currently, Shuffler and her students are analyzing the responses to further develop better metrics for assessing leadership in healthcare environments.
A second aspect of the seed grant from GHS is to advance more in-depth, interdisciplinary research on the impact of leadership and followership as it specifically applies to the field of healthcare. Understanding the critical aspects of relationships between leaders and their units is a key issue for healthcare research, particularly in terms of identifying how leaders may be better able to develop and maintain positive working relationships with their staff. By addressing these issues, staff members will also be better prepared to improve their own interpersonal skills in dealing with patients. “Partnering with GHS is extremely exciting, particularly since Clemson is the lead university that GHS has funded for this research” says Shuffler. “They really care about developing everyone’s leadership skills and are committed to building quality relationships between leaders and subordinates within a hospital setting. They understand that by enhancing collaboration across the different disciplines, their staff will be stronger and better equipped to serve the public.”
At Clemson, Shuffler’s students are learning by example. By studying the organizational goals of NASA and GHS, to name only a few of the organizations that Shuffler has examined through research grants, Clemson students are learning to be both leaders and team members. This knowledge will set them apart from the competition as they venture forth into the workforce.
Shuffler teaches both undergraduate and graduate students. Graduate level courses include “Current Issues in Industrial/Organizational Psychology,” “Groups and Teams,” and “Training and Development.” A particular favorite course with undergraduate students is a course that Shuffler created called, “Teamwork in the 21st Century.” This is not a purely theory- or history-based course, but a course that aims to actively develop student teamwork skills by using a curriculum that divides students into different teams where they can apply the principles of teamwork — particularly in challenging environments like virtual teams. Students learn by doing, and part of the fun is interfacing with virtual teams at other universities around the country.
About Dr. Marissa Shuffler
Majoring in psychology as an undergraduate at Pfeiffer University, Shuffler became interested in organizational communication and psychology. She chose George Mason University for its master’s degree program in industrial/organizational psychology. George Mason University brought her into close geographic proximity to Washington, DC, and ultimately a fellowship with the U.S. Army Research Institute’s Development Research Unit. Her fellowship research centered on identifying and improving leaders for stressful and high risk military deployments and future force needs. It was a timely project that reflected a country shaken by the tragic events of 9/11. Shuffler earned a PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Central Florida in 2013. It was in this program that Shuffler delved deeper into the role of leadership in demanding atypical workplace settings.