How to be an interdisciplinary leader—and why public health outcomes depend on it.

How to be an interdisciplinary leader—and why public health outcomes depend on it.
Last update: 05/04/2022

Today’s consequential public health challenges do not belong to single disciplines. Interdisciplinary leadership offers a new approach to combining expertise and creating breakthrough solutions.

Curing cancer. Overcoming the opioid crisis. Addressing the impacts of the pandemic. Today’s public health challenges are far too complex and multi-faceted to be solved by one discipline alone. Creating meaningful solutions requires an interdisciplinary team.

The benefits of an interdisciplinary approach

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What is an interdisciplinary team?
An interdisciplinary team is more than a team of experts. It is an expert team that collaborates as a flexible heterarchy—each team member enjoying the same level of authority and leadership—focused on developing novel solutions that occur at the junctures between disciplines.

Public health settings offer compelling evidence for the value of interdisciplinary teams and their impact on the quality and safety of clinical care. Unlike siloed efforts, interdisciplinary teams create the capacity for an organization to organize, communicate, contribute, and collaborate to achieve breakthrough thinking and solutions. By drawing on diverse constituencies, such teams embrace a more agile posture that results in faster connections and rapid learning.

In fact, the need for an interdisciplinary approach is increasingly crucial to success. Research indicates that team-based failures are a major, independent, contributing factor to poor health outcomes, and “ineffective care coordination and the underlying suboptimal teamwork processes are a public health issue.” Whether for public health research or clinical care, tough challenges require creating, sustaining, and training interdisciplinary teams to ensure quality of care and innovative solutions.

Best practices for an interdisciplinary approach

In the public health space, it can be daunting to form and lead an interdisciplinary team and improve how it organizes, communicates, and collaborates. Early in a team’s interdisciplinary journey, the onus is on the leader to imbue the enterprise with the necessary energy, structure, development, and management. Although interdisciplinary team development and leadership strategies are highly individual, there are moves that leadership, team members, and team levels can make to better support positive outcomes.

Here are four best practices that leaders can adopt to bring together specialists from an array of disciplines—and inspire them to work together to improve public health outcomes.

1. Develop favorable interpersonal conditions

Leaders must work to cultivate and promote a condition of psychological safety and ensure team members have a shared understanding and expectation of trust, respect, openness, communication, and shared learning. Leaders should establish selflessness and unity of force within their team by aligning around a clear and well-communicated mission, vision, and intent.

2. Provide sufficient scaffolding

Leaders of interdisciplinary teams are also their key architects. As teams are developed, they require an active and ever-changing configuration of scaffolding to hold the structure together (e.g., continuous process improvement, a culture of continual learning, IM/IT, and other infrastructure). That support helps build the foundation required for robust and sustainable collaboration. Scaffolding is easier to accomplish within a deliberate environment of continuous improvement, where the responsibility for identifying and making change is distributed.

Forming and leading interdisciplinary teams requires leaders to show up with enough firepower and commitment to create the reactions that move them beyond simply being a team of experts to being an expert team.

3. Grow the team's skills

Interdisciplinarity is not necessarily intuitive, and maintenance of the status quo culture—where one develops, protects, and operates according to one's expertise—often wins out. As an interdisciplinary leader, it is critical to encourage team members to not only develop their expertise but also co-create new ideas and approaches with others. Oftentimes, new knowledge sits at the junction between disciplines, and it’s critical to foster interdisciplinary curiosity to reveal it. Promote a mindfulness-based awareness of disciplinary junctures and interplay to help teams learn, build a common culture and language, and disrupt long-held disciplinary-defensive positions and information privilege.

4. Shape team behaviors

Although it’s a noun, “interdisciplinarity” is best thought of as an active verb. Be open to change and lead with diversity and inclusion at top of mind. Empower less vocal team members to interact plainly without jargon. Deliberately encourage communication in contexts where psychological safety is low and hierarchical norms appear strong. Promote intentional listening and explicit, real-time, team-based reasoning. Incentivize curiosity and get to know your neighbors. Recognize that some team members have inherently less propensity towards teamwork and may have roles or tasks that benefit from greater disciplinary focus. Take time to identify and acknowledge interdisciplinary accomplishments and set aside the time and space needed for effective team debriefs and reflection.

How to breakthrough

When faced with tough problems, leaders in the public health ecosystem have a choice as to which type of team they want to create. Developing and managing an interdisciplinary team challenges the inertia that comes with poorly integrated and siloed teams. Team members, given a choice, are usually protective of their area of expertise and not energized by reaching across disciplines and encountering subjects in which they do not have specialized knowledge. It takes active and energetic leadership to catalyze the sorts of individual and team behaviors, skills, and co-creation that lead to interdisciplinary breakthroughs. Forming and leading interdisciplinary teams requires leaders to show up with enough firepower and commitment to create the reactions that move them beyond simply being a team of experts to being an expert team.

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