Working in inter- and transdisciplinary teams

March 15th, 2021

Working in inter- and transdisciplinary teams has some particular challenges, that stem from differences between understanding and approaches across different disciplines, and between research and non-research bodies of knowledge. Effective communication is key to building and maintaining effective teams in any context. Some particularly important elements for integration research are building and maintaining trust, developing shared vision, and managing discomfort.


Trust and respect are essential ingredients in effective inter- and transdisciplinary teams. Team building activities offer an opportunity to facilitate strong working relationships, and provide a foundation from which trust and respect can flourish. To be most effective, relationship building activities should be front-loaded, so that good working relationships can establish at a project’s outset, and should include opportunities to build relationships in both formal (collaborative/coworking) and informal (social/drinking and dining) settings. Opportunities to maintain and develop strong working relationships should also exist throughout a project, helping to cultivate open communication, also seen to be important characteristics of effective interdisciplinary teams.

Shared vision

Developing a shared vision and clear expectations around the outcomes of a project are key elements of team building. Collaborative working creates opportunities for team members to talk through and understand the perspectives of others, develop and work towards a shared vision, and work through challenges collectively, in a supportive environment.

“Shared enthusiasm for the problem being solved, and perception that all will benefit from the interaction, and that it will be interesting!”

Managing discomfort

Discomfort can be an important component of inter- and transdisciplinary research, and more prominent than in single or multidisciplinary research. Discomfort can arise from multiple causes – relating to the (often slower) pace of progress, potential lack of clarity of research direction (at particular times during research projects addressing complex problems) and understandings associated with different disciplinary research backgrounds.

“There is no transdisciplinarity without some level of discomfort. It is about how that is managed by the team. It should not be about authoritative decision making that ignores certain views in the team, it should be about engaging the different views in conversations about how things can be done and why they should be done in certain ways. A good leader can guide teams through these moments of discomfort.”

Discomfort can be mediated by a supportive working environment in which listening, open communication and respect (for different team members, backgrounds and ways of working) is fostered. Between the zones of comfort and high personal discomfort, it is possible to create a learning zone. Some discomfort can provide fertile ground for learning, as long as it does not exceed coping thresholds. Therefore, the learning zone is characterized by a manageable degree of intellectual discomfort, which can be used to motivate researchers to engage with the challenges they are facing. It is within this learning zone that there are the greatest opportunities to accelerate innovative, impactful work.

Discomfort continuum for inter- and transdisciplinary teamwork. Personal discomfort stems primarily from a lack of ownership/motivation, and lack of respect. This can be overcome by leadership and team dynamics that promote open communication and listening. Some level of intellectual discomfort can create opportunities for innovative, impactful inter- and transdisciplinary research.


See also Tips and Principles for Integration Research.

Suggested reading

Freeth, R., and G. Caniglia. 2019. Learning to collaborate while collaborating: advancing interdisciplinary sustainability research. Sustainability Science:1–15.