Describing Collective Cognition: Part 2

By Alison Schroeder and Dr. Sara McComb

In our last blog, “Describing Collective Cognition,” we outlined DeChurch and Mesmer-Magnus’s unique model of team cognition, which consists of three main constructs: nature, form, and content of cognition (see Table 1).  In this blog, we aim to briefly explain their results regarding how these cognitive underpinnings impact overall team process and team performance and how these results yield several interesting ideas for practitioners.



Nature of Cognition

Cognition can be congruent (i.e. compositional) or complementary (i.e. compilational) among team members

Form of Cognition

Cognition can model team members’ beliefs, actions, etc. (i.e. perceptual) or the causal links among them (i.e. structured)

Content of Cognition

Cognition can be either task-related or team-related

Table 1: Definitions of nature, form, and content of cognition

First, the type of task assigned to a team directs the importance of understanding the team’s cognitive development.  In their meta-analysis, DeChurch and Mesmer-Magnus found that three distinct team types have been studied at present: (1) action teams, where the task assigned involves high levels of behavioral interdependence (e.g. military combat teams), (2) decision-making teams, where the task assigned involves high levels of informational interdependence (e.g. budget development teams), and (3) project teams, where both behavioral and informational interdependence are required (e.g. research groups).  This meta-analysis shows that performance is most strongly affected by cognition for project teams.  Thus, for many engineering teams formed, cognition cannot be ignored, especially the nature of cognition as it affects both how the team functions as well as the quality of the team’s final product.

Second, because cognitive development is so important for project teams, the congruence, accuracy, and complementarity of cognition must be considered.  In other words, as both congruent and complementary knowledge positively affect performance, both must be considered; however, as complementary knowledge was shown to be more predictive of performance, it should be more heavily weighted to ensure team members know how knowledge is distributed among members and how to access it.  Also, accuracy of perceptual cognition is extremely important, whereas for structured cognition, it is more important that it be congruent across team members.  These findings suggest that communication must be present among team members to the point that all understand who knows what and how to contact them, but not so much as to waste time ensuring everyone knows everything, a point that was also made in our October 2012 blog, “Exploring Team Communication.”

Our third point, that training teams and developing a leadership structure are vital teaming mechanisms, arises out of the necessity to teach team members about cognitive development.  Thus, we need a way for team members to meet one another, learn about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and determine everyone’s value to the team.  Training sessions directly help the team’s functioning through the teamwork and team building activities present.  However, they also offer indirect benefits by laying the groundwork for the team’s cognitive structure.  Instituting a leadership structure for the team further benefits the cognitive development by giving all team members a point of contact if the communication of complementary cognition or congruence of structured cognition breaks down.

Finally, the cognitive demands of the assigned task provide information about how to structure performance assessments including progress measurements and reward structures.  Interim progress measurements are assessments that help individual team members assess what aspects of collective cognition are necessary for successful teamwork and which of these aspects are represented as strengths and weaknesses in the team’s current cognitive structure.  Thus, team members understand what to focus on moving forward.


  1. DeChurch, L. and Mesmer-Magnus, J. The Cognitive Underpinnings of Effective Teamwork: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology. 95(1):32-53, 2010.