New Organizational Psychology Faculty: Dr. Dorothy Carter

October 2, 2022 - Shelly DeJong

Dorothy Carter smiles at the camera Teamwork is essential to the future of work according to Dorothy Carter, Ph.D., a newly hired associate professor of organizational psychology at Michigan State University, who was recruited as part of the college-wide Future of Work initiative.  

“Whether it is collaborating with other people in virtual environments, interfacing with robots and other forms of artificial intelligence, or rapidly assembling into temporary and dynamic organizations to tackle huge challenges such as a global pandemic or a natural disaster, teaming effectively across space and time is a vital skill for succeeding in the workplaces of today and tomorrow,” said Dr. Carter. 

Dr. Carter’s research focuses on leadership, trust, training, and other factors that help teams succeed. Although she does study small teams consisting of a few people, she finds large complex systems composed of multiple groups from diverse backgrounds particularly interesting. The larger the group is, the more likely there are different norms, goals, and priorities across different subgroups. Dr. Carter’s work explores how to overcome those differences so that the entire group collaborates and coordinates effectively.  

“We need these multi-team systems to tackle some of the most important problems we’re facing as humans right now, like climate change, vaccine development, military missions, global pandemics, and space exploration,” said Dr. Carter.  

Researching Multi-Team Systems  

Since 2017, Dr. Carter has led a long-term project funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) focused on better understanding the multi-team coordination challenges NASA will face as they attempt to send a team of astronauts to Mars. She and her team are conducting a series of studies, including interviews and observations with NASA subject matter experts, laboratory experiments, and computer simulations, to provide NASA with best-practice recommendations for supporting multi-team collaboration.  

One of her experiments leverages NASA’s Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) environment–a small capsule located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas designed to simulate a mission to Mars. During each HERA mission, four volunteers live and work continually inside the HERA capsule for 45-days. Dr. Carter’s experiments team up the four HERA volunteers with eight more volunteer participants located at MSU. This multi-team system plays a computer simulation together four times during the mission. The simulation requires that the participants combine different areas of knowledge to solve complex problems, like building a well on the surface of Mars. However, each time they play the game, the teams face different degrees of communication delays which mimic the reality of sending a team of astronauts from Earth to Mars. The further they are from Earth, the more astronauts will experience delays in their communications with Mission Control. Currently, NASA’s communication with Mission Control is almost instantaneous, so the anticipated time delays in long-distance missions will force the teams to function very differently. 

“We're thinking about the social relationships within and across the teams in the system as a type of social network of potential connections,” said Dr. Carter. “We want to know why those social relationships are forming, but also how communication delays might be breaking some of the relationships down, and what people are, or could be, doing to mitigate relational breakdowns.” 

Formal and Informal Leadership 

Dr. Carter’s research often focuses on what leaders can do to help teams and larger systems succeed. However, the complexity of situations she studies means that leadership is often more of an informal process of influence among peers rather than just the actions of a formal boss or supervisor.  

“When a big system of teams has to rapidly assemble to tackle a major disaster, people often struggle to identify who is in charge, and leaders and leadership influence tends to be informal and chaotic,” said Dr. Carter.  

Dr. Carter notes that the question of “Who’s really in charge?” is not completely answered by examining formal organizational charts. Funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), her research seeks to uncover how organizations are really functioning by leveraging social network analysis. 

“We’ve surveyed hundreds of upper- and middle-level managers to better understand whom they rely on for leadership, and why,” she said. “We consistently find that the actual patterns of leadership look quite different from the patterns that are officially on the books. Additionally, we see that informal leadership relationships often arise based on similarities among managers with regard to race, gender, areas of expertise, and team memberships, and these informal relationships can have a significant impact on the organization’s strategic direction and decision-making.”  

Dr. Carter earned her Ph.D. at Georgia Institute of Technology in 2016 where she worked with Dr. Leslie DeChurch, a renowned expert on multiteam system performance. She and her husband Dr. Nathan Carter, who is also a newly hired professor of organizational psychology, along with their 1-year-old daughter Sophia, are happy to call Michigan State their new home.