Human Dimension Issues in Distributed and Virtual Teams

Human Dimension Issues in Distributed and Virtual Teams

Paul T. Bartone and Albert Sciarretta

“When you form a team, why do you try to form a team?  Because teamwork builds trust and trust builds speed.”

Lieutenant General (Retired) Russel L. Honore


In the future global environment, the U.S. military will rely more heavily on distributed command groups for managing and responding to crises and threats. This paper provides a brief overview of key human social psychological factors that can influence the functioning of geographically distributed staff networks.  These factors contribute significantly to the effectiveness of geographically distributed staffs and ad hoc staff networks, affecting their ability to communicate, collaborate and cooperate in responding to complex, rapidly-changing situations. It is thus prudent for present and future military strategic leaders to be aware of these factors, as they can lead to success or failure in globally integrated operations. 

Many factors can impede cooperation among distributed staffs, to include poor communications and information technologies, equipment failures, language barriers, bad weather, and time zone differences.  This paper focuses specifically on human social-psychological issues that come into play for members of geographically dispersed teams, or similarly for members formed from different teams that must work together in pursuit of common goals. In particular, trust is important to the effective functioning of such teams, and a special challenge for teams with widely diverse membership or whose members don’t normally work together on a day-to-day basis.

Virtual and Geographically Dispersed Teams

Geographically dispersed teams are typically established by the organization (e.g., a Combatant Command staff), with members who are separated geographically for various operational reasons (e.g. part of the staff is sent to a mobile, forward operating headquarters).  In contrast, a virtual team is any group of individuals who must work together, and who are connected through technologies such as video-teleconferencing, computer networks, radio and telephone communications (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000).  A geographically dispersed team is also a virtual team, since members rely upon electronic methods of communications.  However, not all virtual teams are geographically dispersed.  For example, virtual teams may operate within the same building or location.  In either case, these teams work across time, space, and organizational boundaries, relying on various electronic communications technologies to coordinate their activities.  

As with any team, virtual and geographically dispersed teams may be relatively long-term and permanent, or short-term and temporary.  Temporary teams are composed of strangers who have not worked together in the past and are not aligned in day-to-day operations by organizational requirements, but are joined together for a specific purpose (e.g., Joint Task Force).  In military operations, these temporary teams will increasingly be multi-agency, including members from DoD, Department of State (DoS), and other departments, as well as international and allied partners and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For example, in the U.S. response to the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, extensive coordination was required between U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) and the DoS, as well as Department of Energy which provided radiation assessment teams for the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and U.S. Transportation Command TRANSCOM  which supplied tactical airlift of relief supplies and personnel, and non-combatant evacuation operation evacuation (NEO) of U.S. citizens.[i]

Why Geographically Dispersed Teams Fail

There is now fairly extensive literature on the special challenges of geographically dispersed and virtual teams (eg., Bowman, 2007).  In general, the available research shows that geographically distributed teams perform less effectively than teams that are co-located, especially on tasks that require innovation (Huang, 2012).   Communication is often difficult, due to technological limitations, time zone differences and competing priorities. Also, dispersed team members often lack clear, agreed upon goals and objectives, and may hold to different values (Huang, 2012).  These shortfalls lead to additional problems for distributed teams. For example, Hinds and Bailey (2003) report that geographically distributed teams experience more task and interpersonal conflict than co-located ones.  This finding was later confirmed by Hinds and Mortensen (2005), who also found these negative effects are mitigated to some degree by a shared sense of identity, and by more frequent spontaneous communications. 

Looking at virtual teams, Horwitz, Bravington and Silvis (2006) identified poor leader communications, uncertainty regarding roles and responsibilities, and lack of trust in relationships as factors impeding successful performance.  Many other studies have identified lack of trust as a destructive factor in geographically distributed teams (Govindarajan and Gupta, 2001). For example, Zolin, Hinds, Fruchter and Levitt (2004) identified trustworthiness and perceived reliability to follow through as key factors in the success or failure of geographically distributed teams. 

Finally, multiple studies point to the importance of leaders finding the right balance among structure, including clear goals, responsibilities and lines of authority, and openness or lack of structure.  For example, in a study of 33 geographically distributed research and development teams, Hinds and McGrath (2006) found that teams with an informal but hierarchical organizational structure performed better than teams with more flat, network structures.  Studies of co-located teams are also relevant here.  In an extensive series of team studies, Hackman and colleagues found that while cooperative, democratic structures and systems can work well in relatively small organizations; teams working within larger organizations require more structure and systems to facilitate communication and coordination of work activities (Hackman, 1998).

In a relevant experimental study, Bowman (2007) examined performance in 6 multinational command groups in which group members, although co-located, communicated primarily through electronic systems.  Results showed that while all groups established trust and cohesion effectively, some did not assign clear roles and responsibilities. This led to confusion as to the overall objective, and resulting frustration. In addition, larger groups showed more frustration and worse performance.

The Problem of Shared or Distributed Situation Awareness

One of the main challenges for distributed staffs concerns how to develop a common understanding or mental picture of a given situation or environment, when individual team members are geographically distant from one another.  Necessarily, what one sees and experiences directly is different from what is seen and experienced indirectly from another location.  As noted by Salmon, Stanton, Walker & Jenkins (2009), situation awareness is usually considered as an individual level variable, and it is measured as such, by asking individuals to report on their personal awareness in situations.  Situation awareness (SA) is thus a particular individual’s cognitive understanding of his/her immediate situation or environmental surround (Endsley, 1995).  From this perspective, situational awareness (SA) is an individual cognitive construct, and shared SA in a distributed team is defined as the overlap or intersection of various team members’ individual SA levels.  In this traditional view, team SA is nothing more than that part of individuals’ SA that is shared by all team members.  

In contrast to this shared SA view, Salmon et al (2009) define Distributed Situation Awareness (DSA) as an emergent group characteristic, SA that is “compatible” across team members, which is an emergent group characteristic rather than an individual one.  They suggest that within collaborative systems, including geographically distributed ones, not every team member needs to know everything about a situation.  Team members only need to know that which allows them to perform their part of the collaborative activity, while being cognizant of what other team members need to know to perform their jobs in the system.  This is a very different view on SA in teams, with quite different implications.  The shared SA view would indicate that information sharing systems should seek to provide all team members with all available information (thus raising the risk of information overload). In contrast, the DSA view suggests that information sharing systems should seek to provide only appropriate information to various team members, based upon their role and function in the collaborative team.  Salmon et al. also propose some novel modeling and measurement strategies that seek to capture DSA as a social phenomenon, a socially-interactive “non-linear emergent property of collaborative systems.”  This seems to be a promising perspective for understanding, and seeking to enhance appropriate information sharing across collaborative groups, while avoiding “information overload” in individual members. However, the problem remains of how to determine who needs to know what, a problem that is more difficult when the situation keeps changing.

Trust in Distributed Human Networks

Trust has long been seen as essential to effective performance in organizations, and indeed to the maintenance of society itself (McAllister, 1995; Simmel, 1978; Weick, 1993).  Several authors have elaborated on the benefits and importance of trust in military organizations and coalitions (Paparone, 2002; Scales, 1998).  The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff likewise has emphasized the importance of trust in order for Joint Forces to operate effectively in an increasingly complex and uncertain environment (Dempsey, 2013).  Under normal conditions, trust in work groups is formed based upon multiple interactions over extended periods of time, interactions that permit an assessment of a person’s skills, abilities, reliability, honesty, and other character traits. 

Paparone (2002) provides a model of trust in the military organization that focuses on three primary factors that influence formation of trust: vulnerability, institutions, and time.  Vulnerability refers to the initial uncertainty that exists between strangers regarding potential weaknesses, and fears that the other person may try to take advantage of such weaknesses.  Institutional influences on trust relate to organizational structures and technologies that can facilitate or impede communications, rules and systems, roles, reputation-building activities, and leadership. For example, the perception of leaders as competent and fair can set a tone in the organization that facilitates development of trust among workers. Finally, time is important, since it takes time to form an accurate assessment of a person’s competencies and ability to perform reliably, and whether that person is likely to act in harmful or helpful ways. 

Establishing trust is a special challenge in temporary groups, where relative strangers come together for a limited period of time to work on a specific problem or task.  In their classic work on the subject, Meyerson, Weick and Kramer (1996) discuss factors that can influence the formation of “swift trust” in such groups.  As is the case with geographically distributed military staffs who are called upon to work on some crisis situation, Meyerson et al. (1996) describe temporary groups as often working on highly complex tasks,  with little formal structure to guide coordination and control. Temporary groups depend for their success on a wide variety of individuals with diverse skills, yet lack the time needed to learn who really knows what. Further, temporary groups:

“…often entail high-risk and high-stake outcomes, yet they seem to lack the normative structures and institutional safeguards that minimize the likelihood of things going wrong. Moreover, there isn’t time to engage in the usual forms of confidence-building activities that contribute to the development and maintenance of trust in more traditional, enduring forms of organization.” (pp. 415-416)

As examples of such temporary group, Meyerson et al (1996) cite movie crews, cockpit crews in airplanes, paramedics, and election campaign organizations. In most such groups, diverse collections of experts come together to perform a mission, and then disperse, with no expectation of working together again.  Yet their success depends upon team members placing trust in others’ capabilities to perform.  Key factors that facilitate formation of “swift trust” in temporary groups include professional reputation and membership in a professional group which permits attributions regarding skills and competencies. This means for example that members of the U.S. military will more readily confer trust on other U.S. military members.  Similarly, due to their common ethos and training background, U.S. Marines will more easily trust other Marines, and members of other services will more readily trust members of their own services.  Additional factors facilitating formation of swift trust are clear role definitions, clarity about tasks, and leaders who display professional competence, reliability, and flexibility.

In this regard, Hyllengren (2008) points also to the positive contagion effect that leaders can exercise within their organizations or groups.  When a leader is confronted with a dangerous or crisis situation, how that leader reacts and copes with such stressful circumstances can have a major impact on how group members perceive the leader’s ability to lead.  This, in turn, may influence the extent to which subordinates trust in their leaders.  A similar position is presented by Bartone, Barry, and Armstrong (2009), who describe leader actions and policies that can result in increased psychological hardiness (composed of commitment, control and challenge) in military groups.  In this framework, commitment involves greater engagement with one’s tasks and activities, and also with one’s social group.  As leaders inspire greater commitment in the group, they also create the conditions for greater trust. 

Meyerson et al (1996) also emphasize the key role of the leader in facilitating swift trust in temporary groups.  The leader must be competent, cooperative and forgiving, but also willing to enforce standards and discipline when needed, to include firing or relieving non-performers. For leaders and co-workers alike,

“…the act of conferring swift trust involves rendering judgments more about other individuals’ professionalism than their character. Deviations from or violations of group norms and presumptions about competent role behavior call into question the ’professionalism’ of the transgressor. Not only are they noted and frowned on, but they are likely to be punished.”  (Meyerson et al., 1996, p. 439)

These authors further state that in establishing trust in temporary groups, people rely upon “…general cues from which inferences are drawn about how people might care for what we entrust to them.”  These cues are mainly drawn from the specific situation, and include such things as professional identity and credentials, roles, and reputations.  Cultural beliefs or biases may also play a part, as when one believes that all members of a particular nationality or ethnic group are more or less reliable or truthful.  Cues regarding trustworthiness are also taken from small exchanges in which one person provides another with something needed and valued, such as information.  Likewise even small indicators of unreliability, such as being late or unavailable for a scheduled phone call, can have magnified negative effects on trust.  

Advanced Technologies and Virtual Teams

Traditional communications tools to support virtual and dispersed teams include radio, telephone, fax, conference calls, and more recently video teleconference calls. These methods mainly rely on transmission of analog signals, which can be slow and expensive. With the advent of computers, networks, and mobile devices, faster and cheaper digital computer mediated communications (CMC) methods have become more common.  These include text-based systems such as email and text messaging, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone and video systems (e.g., Skype, FaceTime), and a whole panoply of online tools used to support collaboration and communication in virtual teams.   For example, there are now many free and commercial online meeting programs, including Cisco WebEx, OmniJoin, Citrix GoToMeetingMeetingWizard, and MeetingBurnerAmong their other features, these programs allow team members to see each other while talking, share screens and documents, and record their meetings for later review and reference. However, they do require reliable internet connections.  Also, all team members must be signed on at the same time, which can be a problem when working across multiple time zones.  In military applications, the security of these systems (or lack thereof) is an important consideration that can limit their usefulness for some scenarios.

Perhaps the primary limitation of CMC tools is that they fail to convey the social cues, facial expressions, tones, body language that are integral to face-to-face communications.  Studies have shown that the reduced social cues in CMC are related to lowered personal involvement in the task, and less commitment to the team (Walther and Parks, 2002; Jarvenpaa and Leidner, 1998). However, recent studies suggest that these negative interpersonal effects may be overcome to some degree by the use of avatars to represent individual team members in such systems.  For example, carefully constructed avatars have been shown to exert a positive influence on interpersonal engagement and team performance (Davis, Murphy, Owens, Khazanchi and Zigurs, 2009; van der Land, Schouten, Feldberg, Huysman and van den Hooff, 2014).

Some of the seminal work on use of avatars has been done by the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM), which pioneered the use of online virtual worlds and gaming systems to facilitate work across geographically dispersed teams (Cherbakov, 2009).  Probably the main such tool is known as SecondLife, which is an open source virtual world system that users can modify to suit their own requirements. It includes text chat, video and voice functions, and avatar customization. Using these tools, IBM has enhanced productivity and effectiveness in multiple areas, including meetings with dispersed participants, team building, conferences, training and project management (Cherbakov, 2009).

An interesting new development in online collaborative tools involves the use of more realistically human avatars to represent various members of the virtual team. One recent study showed that when using avatars in virtual teams, motivation and performance were enhanced when avatars are made to resemble not only the individual, but also other team members (van der Land, Schouten, Feldberg, Huysman and van den Hooff, 2014). In other words, when the avatars representing virtual team members look somewhat alike, team members are more likely to cooperate to accomplish tasks.  This is most likely a function of social identity processes, in which individuals tend to see themselves as similar to others who look and act like them, and evaluate them more favorably. This is an exciting new avenue for potentially increasing the formation of swift trust in virtual teams.  More work is needed that applies knowledge from social psychology to the design of avatars and various other features of virtual collaborative programs, and assess their influence on team cooperation and performance. 

Another area where technology can help is in training future members of virtual and distributed teams. The DoD’s Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative has developed and fielded a number of tools that can facilitate effective learning in mobile and distributed groups (see ).  These tools could be used to help train personnel before the start of a mission, so that they are better prepared for the challenges of working in virtual and dispersed teams.

Technology is Not Enough

It is important to guard against the widespread tendency in our culture to seek technical solutions for every problem.  While better technologies and equipment can certainly help, they can also be misused in ways that damage trust and cooperation in distributed teams.  For example, improved telecommunications systems may make it easier for some leaders to “micro manage” an operation – with respect to immediate subordinate units or even units that are several echelons below the leader.  While such micro-management may assuage the leader’s desire to be more engaged in the operation, it can also create feelings of mistrust in the subordinate units – i.e., members of these units may perceive their leaders don’t trust them.

Similarly, advanced information and communications tools can create the illusion of shared situation awareness for leaders, when in fact they are getting a distorted picture of what is happening “on the ground.”  A leader looking through the soda straw of an information system doesn’t always see everything that a unit many echelons below is experiencing. This was a complaint heard often in research conducted by Chait and Sciarretta (2006) on security and reconstruction operations.  The dismounted infantry squads complained that battalion commanders were trying to tell squad leaders where to turn, when in fact, the route identified by the battalion commander was blocked by obstacles which the squad leader could see, but the battalion commander could not see.  The squad leader’s ultimate solution to the quandary was to fake “an inability to hear the commander due to radio static.”  

Thus, while technological limitations are often a problem for virtual teams, the human obstacles can be even more severe.  In support of this view, Kimble (2011) reviews a number of case studies, concluding that the human, organizational problems faced by virtual teams are more significant impediments than technical ones.  He notes the lack of social and contextual cues in virtual communications can lead to confusion and misinterpretation of messages. For example, if one does not know the identity and organizational environment of the person sending the message, it is difficult to judge importance and meaning. Even “common sense” words and terms are open to different interpretations, depending on context. And context is often limited or absent in virtual communications.

This can be especially problematic in text-based communications like email and text messaging. Ferrazzi (2013) offers a number of useful suggestions for avoiding miscommunications in these mediums.  One is to “amplify the signal.”  Too often, we assume that our message and intent are as clear as if we were communicating face-to-face.  But given the absence of contextual cues in virtual communications, it is more important to “spell things out,” and not assume that one’s meaning is clear in a short message.  Even simple words and punctuation can be misconstrued in text communications.  For example, does an exclamation point indicate surprise, anger, excitement, or empathy, as in “I wish I knew!” 

Ferrazzi also recommends extra care in virtual communications to be polite, respectful and gracious, so as to set a positive tone for understanding and sharing of information. It is always a good idea to address a person by name, and to include your own name at the end of the message. Ending a message without any kind of goodbye or salutation may be construed as rude, just as hanging up the phone without a good-bye would be.  Emails that are overly terse and sloppy, with poor grammar and spelling, convey a message that the recipient is unimportant, or even that the subject is unimportant.  How quickly you respond to emails and other messages in the virtual environment is also important. A slow response may be taken as lack of concern or interest.  In virtual teams, these kinds of cues take on greater importance for influencing trust and cooperation.

Some Implications and Recommendations[ii]

Future military operations are expected to be considerably more complex, with command elements distributed widely across the globe. To facilitate more effective coordination and cooperation in distributed command networks, increased attention should be given to the following areas:

a. Senior leaders – both military and civilian - should provide clear mission and guidance.

b. Need to establish clear roles and responsibilities for all parties.

c. Maximize opportunities for face-to-face meetings and relationship-building before a crisis or mission develops.[iii]

d. Provide effective communications tools and systems, and assure senior leaders are practiced in using them.  This includes not only secure communications channels, but also widely available methods including email, internet teleconferencing, and commercial cell phones that can be used for non-secure communications with command groups as well as mission partners.

e. Train personnel in the uses of new communications technologies, and strategies to reduce miscommunication in virtual teams.


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End Notes

[i] Center for Technology & National Security Policy (January, 2014). Iron Crucible Case Studies: Japan 2011 Operation Tomodachi.  Washington DC: National Defense University, Center for Technology & National Security Policy.

[ii] These recommendations are preliminary based on a “quick look” study of the issue.  A more comprehensive study is needed to determine what is known about developing trust and enhancing performance in virtual  / distributed command and control teams.

[iii] The amount of face-to-face interaction needed is likely proportional to the degree of diversity of the team members – e.g., coalition staffs would need more time together than U.S. joint staffs.


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