Lessons from NASA: managing (very) remote teams

With the end of one era in space travel, marked by the final launch of the United States' Space Shuttle last week, NASA looks to the future of space exploration in its new book, Psychology of Space Exploration. In addition to offering insights for the next generation of space travelers, the book may also provide guidance for more earth-bound professionals, such as CIOs.

Information technology is a global endeavour, requiring cooperation among team members often drawn from several nations. These teams may be based overseas, and so not have face-to-face contact with their managers. Stress levels can be high, and communication can suffer.

Many of the same challenges are faced by astronauts on long-duration space missions, and a their experiences may provide helpful lessons for CIOs who need to manage a diverse workforce at a remote location.

Canadian psychologist Peter Suedfeld and his colleagues wanted to know how astronauts deal with being a guest on space missions led by a foreign country.

These researchers discovered that foriegn astronauts worked well with the astronauts from the host country, contrary to early reports that astronauts from different countries have conflicts due to cultural differences.

Apparently, their frustrations were directed instead toward their space agencies back on Earth.

According to Suedfeld and his colleagues:

"It seems clear that space voyagers who fly in a crew composed mostly of people from their own country have a different experience from those who are a minority flying with a mostly foreign crew.

"Minority status ... led to more positive comments about one's family, perhaps to compensate for some degree of social isolation; apparently, absence made the heart grow fonder (which was not found for majority crewmembers). One's own home organization evoked more negative references, confirming the complaints of inadequate preparation and support that characterize some anecdotal comments.

"The agency in charge of the mission—that is, a space agency foreign to the minority flier—was viewed with increasing mistrust as the mission unfolded, perhaps with the recognition that its rules and procedures were alien and sometimes uncomfortable. However, there was no evidence that bad feelings prevailed toward the majority crewmates, again despite conclusions sometimes drawn from selected anecdotal reports. In fact, the data showed a generally trustful and friendly attitude....

"It should be noted that, in the same way, the majority crewmembers expressed trust and friendship toward their foreign colleagues—once again contradicting the negative picture drawn from selective quoting of particular complaints."

If managers back on Earth are prepared for these difficulties, they can provide training to help prevent conflicts between team members.

The key is to see the problems as arising from stressful environments, and not due to unchangeable personalities.

As Harvey Wichman, director of the Aerospace Psychology Laboratory at Claremont McKenna College explains in the book,


"There is a subset of social psychology theory referred to as attribution theory. Much of the research in this area indicates that humans have a tendency to attribute people's behavior to their character. This is known as the fundamental attribution error.

"It is the tendency to over-attribute the motivation for a person's behavior to that person's character and underestimate the effect of situational factors. When we emphasize selecting the right "type" of person for spaceflight instead of creating the right type of social and environmental factors, we are committing the fundamental attribution error. We have seen ... how good people could be made to do bad things by simple manipulation of situational circumstances.

We have also seen in my Aerospace Psychology Laboratory study presented here that people in one group similar to people in another group could have the negative behaviors they would be expected to produce dramatically reduced ... by a small amount of focused training."

In fact, in Wichman's simulation of spaceflight, the highpoint of the experience for these space-tourists was having contact with Mission Control, so they could ask questions and learn more about their mission.

Astronauts who are having conflicts with other crew members may be reluctant to report the problems to managers back on Earth.

But advances in information technologies allow astronauts to receive guided tutorials on dealing with problems ranging from interpersonal conflict to feelings of depression—all without anyone on Earth knowing about it.

The key is to use self-contained instructional modules, all kept on a flash drive that the astronaut controls, ensuring privacy even in the close quarters of an orbiting spacecraft.

As psychologiest Gro Mjeldheim Sandal and Gloria Leon explain,

"Robust and sensitive assessment methods for monitoring behavior and health in space are crucial for obtaining a high quality of research, but also for the early detection of behavioral health problems. Improved prediction, prevention, and treatment of distress will improve the safety of international long-duration space missions.

"With regard to both prevention and treatment, the development of countermeasures designed for autonomous crews become more important as we prepare for much longer exploration-class missions to Mars and beyond. One example is the development of a computer-interactive video countermeasure technology for the prevention and treatment of depression, and another is a program for conflict resolution....

"This countermeasure has a number of features that appear to make it quite acceptable for astronaut use on a mission—using the astronaut's familiarity and comfort with computer technologies, supplying confidentiality because the astronaut can work through the program in the privacy of his or her quarters, teaching coping methods, and focusing on prevention and early intervention to avoid having problems spiral out of control."

In the future, similar instructional programs might be used back on Earth for employees encountering challenges, whether they are at their home base or travelling abroad, requiring nothing more than a standard laptop computer.

This comment includes excerpts from Psychology of Space Exploration, edited by Douglas Vakoch of the Seti Institute, and is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office

Pic: NASA Goddard Photo and Video cc2.0