We rely upon teams to perform complex tasks in highly demanding environments, ranging from space exploration to response to earth-bound disasters. In this article, we first briefly review the rich historical legacy of research on teams in extreme settings. Second, we orient our discussion of team performance in extreme environments by focusing on the contextual environment—the high demand, high-stress environment in which these teams operate. We discuss the mechanisms through which extreme demands or stress may impact team behavior, and discuss specific team processes and emergent states that may be impacted by these conditions. Finally, we address challenges in conducting research on extreme teams, and describe implications for application and practice.
Teams in extreme environments
It is useful to first describe what we mean by the terms “team” and “extreme environments.” We define a team as two or more persons who interact in pursuit of a common goal (see Salas, Cooke, & Rosen, 2008). For our purposes, we will use the terms “team” and “group” interchangeably and further note that teams of interest may typically range in size from a dyad (e.g., the early studies of isolated and confined groups by Haythorn and colleagues; Haythorn, Altman, & Myers, 1966) to ten (e.g., the Navy Sea Lab program; Helmreich, 1966) to twenty or more (e.g., groups wintering-over in the Antarctic; Stuster, 1996). Further, we define the term extreme environments as settings in which there are significant task, social, or environmental demands that entail high levels of risk and increased consequences for poor performance. According to Harrison and Connors (1984), extreme (or exotic) environments may be marked by (a) hostile environmental demands, (b) danger and physical risk to self or others, (c) restricted living or working conditions, and (d) social demands that may include isolation from those outside the setting and close confinement with those inside. Bell, Fisher, Brown, and Mann (2016) define extreme environments as (a) task contexts that are atypical in terms of the level of demands (e.g., time pressure) or the type of demands (e.g., confinement, danger), and (b) contexts in which ineffective performance has severe consequences. It is worthwhile to note that our working definition subsumes a large number of diverse types of settings. For example, Stachowski, Kaplan, and Waller (2009) define crisis situations as low-probability, high-impact events characterized by time pressure and ambiguity and that have significant consequences for the team (see also Yu, Sengul, & Lester, 2008). Harrison and Connors (1984) describe exotic environments as those marked by severe environmental conditions, danger, isolation, and enforced interaction with others. Gardner (2012) describes performance pressure as an external force imposed on the team that includes shared outcome accountability, heightened scrutiny of the team's work, and significant consequences for the team's performance; whereas Salas, Driskell, and Hughes (1996) define stress as a process by which environmental demands evoke an appraisal process in which perceived demand exceeds resources, and that results in undesirable physiological, psychological, behavioral, or social outcomes. These are all related terms that have been used to describe different types of high-demand task settings. Moreover, we note that the main commonality among these various terms is that they all refer to a highly demanding performance context. Current research on teams in extreme environments include the study of teams in long-duration spaceflight (Salas, Tannenbaum et al., 2015), mountaineering teams in high-altitude settings (Wickens, Keller, & Shaw, 2015), teams in military settings (Driskell, Burke, Driskell, Salas, & Neuberger, 2014), teams in nuclear plant control rooms (Stachowski et al., 2009), and other teams in various high-demand, high-stress environments (Ellis, 2006; Kamphuis, Gaillard, & Vogelaar, 2011; Pearsall, Ellis, & Stein, 2009). Finally, we note that the task, environmental, and social demands that teams face in extreme settings are matters of degree—that is, we view “extreme teams” as those operating under task conditions that may vary on a continuum of very high demand to moderate demand. Thus, our view is that teams operating under demanding conditions may include combat teams as well as project teams.