Research

Amy L. Fraher

My passion is working at the boundary between the technical skills and interpersonal processes found in high-risk team operations. Examining the interrelatedness of these seemingly separate skill sets, I study the forces that affect leadership, communication, teamwork and sense-making in high-risk organizations such as aviation, military, police, fire fighting and medicine. My research has revealed that what differentiates excellent performers from average ones in high-risk organizations is an ability to manage anxiety, tolerate ambiguity, communicate effectively and teambuild often in unpredictable environments under highly stressful situations with little margin for error. 

I recently received a $30,000 research grant to investigate sense-making in organizations. The research question originated from my own experience as a pilot and naval officer. It seemed to me that the most common approach to disaster research is to analyze ‘what went wrong’ after an organizational crisis. Studies of Wall Street like Enron, government agencies like NASA, and healthcare like the NHS, often cite peoples’ growing concerns about a problem before disaster. Yet, for a variety of reasons, these concerns either go uncommunicated or unheeded.

In addition, recent disasters illuminated a surprising range of individuals required to act as key decision-makers during a crisis, especially during the onset when problems are unclear. Initial actions taken by teachers during school shootings, healthcare workers during hurricane evacuation, and CEOs during product recall, play central roles in determining if a situation escalates to full blown crisis. As a result, a wide range of professionals require the ability to quickly make sense of an unfolding situation, sifting through ambiguous information to determine a course of action. Yet, little research has focused on exactly how this sense-making process occurs.

My interest is in studying strategies that professionals in high-risk fields use to help make sense of an unusual situation and how they determine a course of action. For example, how do high-risk professionals think, feel, process, and puzzle-through the unexpected when they encounter it in their work lives. What resources do they use—past experiences, training, a hunch, gut-feeling, instinct, smell, sound? How do these signals emerge in the heat of the moment, and then how is this sense-making information used to help make a decision to act?

Building on this research I developed team training methods which have been successfully implemented in the US, UK, EU and Australia with excellent results. By emphasizing the study of a unique combination of group dynamics, human factors, and safety awareness along with the technical fundamentals jobs require, these programs enhance participants’ development of situational awareness, critical thinking and problem solving skills.