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What Space Travel Teaches us about Team Collaboration

Leading and managing high-performing teams can appear to be an art form too mysterious to grasp in its entirety. As team leaders or managers, you might not have the time to research the most effective methods and tools to support you in fostering seamless team collaboration. You might even wonder why you need to. But a lack of understanding of how to run an effective team can cause a host of dysfunctional behaviours in a team environment, undermining productivity and damaging workplace culture. In this article, I share the outcome of my personal study into team collaboration and performance amongst astronauts in space travel and what we can all learn from their example.

Before we explore the lessons we can learn, let’s consider some of the key issues facing team leaders and managers today. Many of the leaders and managers I engage with complain about team members who are so focused on their own careers that they undermine project progress by not sharing their skills and experience to support other team members. Others speak of a lack of straightforward communication, which stifles the progress of problem resolution. Team leaders and managers are sometimes unaware that their own actions (or inactions) foster an atmosphere of suppression, for example, when the ideas put forward by individual team members are harshly criticised and quickly dismissed. Quashing self-expression in this way sabotages the ability to bring innovative ideas to life, which in turn diminishes productivity. Another common issue I observe is teams not being aligned with the goals for a project, leading to constant arguments about project priorities. This typically slows a team down in their project delivery and compromises team engagement and effectiveness.

Issues like these can lead to frustration, anxiety and stress in team leaders and managers, especially when they don’t know how to change the dysfunctional behaviour. So they do what they have always done and put up with it, pushing through the best way they can. But they suffer the consequences when they keep experiencing project delays or team disharmony, often carrying the burden by themselves. Perhaps you resonate? While these are complex issues, and we can’t resolve them all in this discussion, I’d like to hone in on one key factor that became clear in my studies and that impacts many of these challenges.

Lessons in team performance from one of the world’s highest performing teams

I thought it would be interesting to learn how highly effective teams on the world stage perform. I set out to look at teams that work under the most critical and high-risk conditions, where there is no room for error and where even the slightest mistake can be life-threatening. My curiosity led me to study team collaboration during space travel, an area of particular interest to me, not only from a leadership perspective but also as I have a background in science as a physicist. How do they operate in these extraordinarily challenging environments with immense pressure to get it right the first time? What can we learn from them? What is driving them and ensuring effective team collaboration?

My investigation brought me to a recent interview with NASA's Space Crew – 1 Astronauts: Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Soichi Noguchi from the Japanese Exploration Agency (JAXA) at the Launch America Conference. These four astronauts were part of an extraordinary seven-member crew that experienced 168 days in space before returning to Earth on May 2 2021. It was a mission that undoubtedly required outstanding team collaboration. During the interview, they explained how they operated as a high-performing team.

What really struck a chord with me and explained each astronaut’s dedication to team collaboration was their deep connection to a way of Being that Ashkan Tashvir distinguishes in the Being FrameworkTM called ‘higher purpose’:

Higher purpose is being drawn and compelled towards a future vision or cause greater than your personal concerns and beyond your immediate interests and/or comfort in such a way that it sets your priorities and worldview. It’s going beyond yourself and the current circumstances to identify resolutions that will drive you towards that future vision.

As an ontological coach who uses the Being Framework in my practice, I know that living life with higher purpose draws people toward a cause that is greater than personal concerns and goes beyond immediate interests and levels of comfort. It is a way of Being that drives people toward a future vision and being of service to others. Teams that operate from the perspective of higher purpose are much more effective in their team collaboration. Let’s consider an example of how higher purpose played out for this team of astronauts during their recent space mission.

The astronauts referred to a task called ‘port relocation’, an extremely delicate team-based operation that involves docking a spacecraft at a space station. The entire process went smoothly and according to schedule on the first attempt. How did they get such a challenging manoeuvre right the first time when they didn’t have much opportunity to practice and perfect it? The answer is higher purpose. The astronauts said they perform and perfect this task for future generations of astronauts.

They weren’t concerned about instant gratification or immediate rewards. Instead, they were 100% focused and aligned to their greater cause – they were being of higher purpose. They were practically living and breathing their mission and nothing else would have mattered more during the execution of the tasks to achieve their objective. What’s more, they knew they might never experience the impact their work has on future astronauts. They were performing a selfless service by executing a highly dangerous task without any prestige attached to it. And they weren’t fishing for acknowledgement, respect or fame; their focus was on perfecting the teamwork for a much greater cause.

The space travel example highlights that connection to higher purpose as a way of Being drives team members to go the extra mile. When teams are serving a greater mission, a common goal or vision that is beyond themselves and their current circumstances, they are less focused on themselves and naturally drawn to fulfilling challenges they would normally not take on. They don’t waste time blaming themselves or each other when mistakes are made and spend less time worrying about how to master challenges. They just get on with it. Their attitude contributes to creating a positive workplace culture as team members are engaged and passionate about what they are working towards.

Taking a higher purpose view, what is the greater vision for your project or business? Does your team understand the ‘why’ of their work, and are they connected and aligned with it? What do you need to do to get them excited about your project or business? As the leader, it starts with you and your relationship with higher purpose as a way of Being. Leaders who have a healthy relationship with higher purpose are typically regarded as charismatic, visionary and committed to something meaningful and worthwhile. By setting a positive example for the people you lead, you will create a powerful ripple effect.

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