By Psychology PhD student, Louise Davidson

The Science of Teamwork

Teamwork is something that most of us engage in every day – for example, within a work team or a sports team. We know the members of our teams… their names, their strengths, their weaknesses, and their role within the team. We consider them to be part of ‘us’.

There is an abundance of evidence to show that when we feel like we belong to a team, we generally work well with its members. This sense of ‘us-ness’ provides a strong basis for coordination and cooperation that is vital for teamwork through providing team members with shared goals and norms, as well as expectations of support from each other.

However, alongside the teams that we belong to, there are also often others that we don’t. Rather than being part of ‘us’, they are seen as ‘them’.

But what happens when we find ourselves having to work with ‘them’? Is it possible to overcome this ‘us-them’ divide? And, if so, how?

Working together to save lives

This is exactly the challenge faced by emergency services in the UK when they tackle major incidents. In contrast to other emergencies, like a small fire or minor burglary, major incidents exceed the capabilities of any single emergency service to handle on its own.

Consider, for example, the Manchester Arena Attack in 2017, where a bomb went off at the end of a music concert, killing 22 people. Here, vital information about the nature of the incident wasn’t shared between the emergency services, resulting in the Fire Service being kept away from the scene for a considerable length of time.

In incidents like Manchester Arena, the Police, Fire, and Ambulance Services need to work together to save lives and reduce harm. But how can they do this, when in most situations the members of each of these different services see the other two services as ‘them’, rather than as ‘us’?

This is a critical question, and one that I have been seeking to answer in my doctoral research, and one that I tried to explain during the Soapbox Science Event in May.

Presenting to the public on Brighton seafront at the Soapbox Science event earlier this year.

Soapbox Science, 2022

After taking part in the virtual Soapbox Science event in 2021, I was so excited to have the opportunity to take part in the in-person event this year. On a beautifully sunny day in May, I turned up on Brighton seafront, wooden sticks and playballs in tow. Having never done an event like this before, I was slightly apprehensive as to what to expect. However, as soon as I stood on the soapbox and began talking to members of the public and seeing their engagement, I felt instantly at ease.

Kids were drawn to the game I had created which involved three people representing Blue, Red, or Green Team (Police, Fire, and Ambulance, respectively). First, they had to work on their own get their colour balls out of the box and into their bucket using a stick. Then, they were able to work together. We counted the balls in the buckets to determine whether working as a team was more effective than working alone.

Interestingly, in some cases, people did not perform better when they worked as a team. But I explored why this was – in those cases, they didn’t communicate, they didn’t strategize, and they continued working as individuals (despite being allowed to work together).

I was able to use this as a starting point for talking about teamwork within the emergency services, as discussed above.  

The thing I enjoyed most about soapbox science is sharing my passion for my research with members of the public – seeing both children and adults getting involved and excited and hopefully sparking some passion in them too, as well as showing young girls that they can have a career in science. I would like to thank the organisers of this event for giving me the opportunity to be there.

About me

My name is Louise and I have just gone into the third year of my PhD in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex. Alongside my studies, I also work as a research assistant in the Behavioural Science and Insights Unit at the UK Health Security Agency.

My passion for emergency response stemmed from my Masters degree in Investigative and Forensic Psychology at the University of Liverpool. Here I learned about the persistent challenges that emergency responders face during major incident response, and the subsequent impact this then has on their ability to respond and help those in need. At the same time as conducting my Masters, the Manchester Arena Attack took place, and I knew from that moment that I wanted to pursue a career where I could help in these situations.

Whilst we won’t be able to prevent all major incidents from occurring, this research helps us understand why challenges with multi-agency response occur, and importantly what can be done to prevent them re-occurring in the future. This understanding is so important in order to facilitate a more effective emergency response to major incidents in the future and, ultimately, save lives.

Demonstrating the challenges faced by the emergency services using coloured sticks and playballs.

Find out more about Louise’s research from her publication, preprint, and practitioner reports. You can also follow Louise on Twitter @loudavidson07.





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