Emotion, Stress, and Team Cognition

Team performance research simultaneously considers the individual and group level of analysis, and it is important not to conflate the two. Although individuals perform actions and experience emotion and stress, it can be misleading to define team performance, emotion, or stress as simply the aggregation of those variables from the individual level. A team cannot feel sad, for example. However, the regulating processes and collective outcomes of the interactions among individuals, including the influences of emotion and stress, are clearly in the domain of team activity. Therefore, it can be a challenge to distinguish which aspects of a research problem belong to the individual and which belong to the team.

The concept of team requires further definition, particularly in comparison to the term group, as the two are often used interchangeably in the literature. Of the two, group is the more general term. Groups tend to consist of a less-differentiated membership, coalesce for a given goal, and then disband. Teams generally have a shared history, a projected future, and distinct functions and roles. These are not rigid distinctions, as flexible teams may often interchange roles or redistribute tasks (Brannick & Prince, 1997). The term team refers to a collection of individuals organized in such a manner to serve a function (e.g., police department) for a host organization (e.g., municipal emergency center). To manage a complex event, multiple teams (e.g., the police and hazardous materials services) may have to share information and coordinate activities to address a compound threat (such as an overturned chemical truck) as a team of teams.

The adaptive team model (Serfaty, Entin, & Johnston, 1998) explains how stress is both an input and an output of team processes. Their model demonstrates the interaction of the effects of stress on individual cognition with those stressors found in team contexts, such as role uncertainty or miscommunication. It shows that not only does individual stress impact team processes, but difficulties in the team processes themselves can generate stress. Performance feedback also modulates stress—poor performance informs the team that there are failures at one or more layers in the process. Successful teams are responsive to these feedback structures, rather than adhering rigidly to some fixed approach to teamwork.

Emotion research at the team and organizational level has focused on the effects of emotional contagion, defined as a social influence involving the conscious or unconscious transfer of emotions to other group members, which happens not only in face-to-face interactions, but even during computer-mediated communication such as text-based chat (Pirzadeh, 2014; Pirzadeh & Pfaff, 2012). Therefore, there should be value in research focusing on team performance under stress, assessing not only how team members share information with each other, but also how they share stress and emotions with each other through verbal and nonverbal cues.

The emotional contagion concept of group or collective emotion has been shown to influence team performance not just as a result of the average emotional state of a group, but also the team’s emotional diversity (Brief & Weiss, 2002). The model of group emotional contagion (Barsade, 2002) describes a process beginning with the emotional state of a group member, expressed in terms of valence (positive or negative) and intensity (high or low). This emotional state is perceived by group members, but with that perception moderated by attentional processes; greater attentional allocation leads to greater contagion. Attention may be affected by environmental or task-related factors, but also by type and intensity of the emotion being expressed. Contagion may occur by one of two paths, the first being primitive emotional contagion, characterized by subconscious reactions to someone’s emotion expression, usually in the form of changes of facial expression, body language, or speech behaviors. This type is most strongly associated with in-person emotional contagion. The second path is more cognitively effortful, in which an individual perceives another’s mood and adjusts his or her own according to the situation. In this case, emotion is perceived as information about how one should be feeling, and can be transmitted and received by other channels, such as text-based chat (Pirzadeh, 2014). Awareness of this emotion can provide feedback about how the team is performing, similar to the affect as information perspective (Schwarz & Clore, 1996), in which happy moods provide the information that the task is going well, but sad moods suggest that there may be problems present. Positive moods appear to improve group cohesion and cooperativeness, which in turn benefits team performance (Barsade, 2002).

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