Ambiguity, Trust and Common Ground

There are some ideas that one just keeps circling back on. Once of those for me is the notion of common ground as a shared understanding among members of a team. Crandall, Klein and Hoffman describe the process of maintaining common ground as:
”...the continuous maintenance and repair of calibrated understanding among members of a team. It is necessary for coordination; otherwise, the team members can misinterpret intentions and messages.” (p.140)

Some months back I had a long conversation with Gary Klein about this topic in the context of team knowledge – the ability of a team to work effectively together. What struck me then was the importance of gaining a strong mutual familiarity among the members of the team, since this allows team members to form reasonably accurate expectations about how their fellows will react in different circumstances, even when they are not co-located, and in the absence of explicit communications about what they are doing.

Following on from that was Gary’s suggestion that common ground is always in the process of being broken down as individual team member circumstances and understandings change, and as they meet the limits of their mutual familiarity. This is why maintenance of common ground – essentially regular re-calibration of mutual understandings – is a critical team process. It can be as simple as regular meetings, habits of keeping each other informed, habits of checking one’s understanding and not making too many assumptions, or it can be as complex as having formal verification and validation mechanisms. This is important in the military, where the breakdown of common ground can lead to fatal friendly fire incidents.

Recently however I have been in a team situation where familiarity was not the issue but trust was, and it had some interesting effects on common ground – specifically, absence of trust accelerated the breakdown of common ground astronomically. In a nutshell, two of us in the team simply didn’t trust each other, though we are very familiar with each other. It started when one party stopped engaging in the small common ground maintenance activities. What happened then, I realised, was that whenever ambiguity arose about what the other party was doing, where in a trusted relationship we form our expectations based on assumptions of best efforts, in this case we were both imagining – and worse, communicating – our imagined worst suspicions.

Small ambiguities, and small lapses in common ground maintenance (like keeping each other informed of small steps) quickly got inflamed into conflicts, which further inhibited both of our motivations to engage in the common ground maintenance activities. In the end, it simply got to a point where one of us had to be very explicit about how and when actions and communications were to be conducted – less of a team effort and more of a reporting relationship.

It wasn’t pretty, and it was very uncomfortable (I am sure for all the team members including the reluctant observers to the fireworks show) for a few weeks, and I am not sure that the relationship is repairable, but at least we are functioning again. But it struck me how much for granted we take those small common ground maintenance activities, and how fragile we are as teams when trust is not there to carry us through the lapses and ambiguities. At one point in the conversation I mentioned earlier, Gary Klein remarked that he was sometimes surprised at how resilient teams are, given the ease with which common ground can be threatened. My uncomfortable adventure leads me to suspect that trust takes us a long way towards that resilience.


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