. What a Mount Everest Tragedy Can Teach Us About Teamwork | Northstar Meetings Group

What a Mount Everest Tragedy Can Teach Us About Teamwork

Committed Teams

Ensuring productive meetings begins with identifying potential sources of conflict between team members - and having an open discussion about them. Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air, can tell you it is not so easy. The writer for Outside magazine joined an expedition to the summit of Mount Everest that would end in one of the worst tragedies in the history of the legendary mountain. It was the spring of 1996 when he agreed to join Rob Hall, one of the world's best climbers, on a trip organized through Hall's adventure travel company.

The group included some relative novices, but Hall was confident in his ability to get the team to the summit and back safely. Hall laid down clear goals and a timeline for reaching the top. He established roles by assigning trained guides and Sherpas to specific duties and determining where in the group they would be during the climb. He set rigid norms about communication and the chain of command, telling his clients: "I will tolerate no dissension up there. My word will be absolute law, beyond appeal. If you don't like a particular decision I make, I'd be happy to discuss it with you afterward, but not while we're up on the hill."

Members of the expedition seemed to be in agreement on the ground rules. As they began their ascent on May 6, Hall felt good about the cohesion of the team. Yet while the clients appeared unified on the surface, some quietly expressed apprehension about the lack of training and low level of preparedness among some members in the group. Krakauer would later write: "We were a team in name only, I'd sadly come to realize. Although in a few hours we would leave camp as a group, we would ascend as individuals, linked to one another by neither rope nor any deep sense of loyalty. Each client was in it for himself or herself, pretty much."

This gap between the apparent cohesion of the group and the every-man-for-himself attitude held privately by many of the climbers came back to haunt the expedition when it met adversity on the way up the mountain. As the weather worsened and some of the climbers began to struggle, things fell apart. The lead Sherpa, who was supposed to lay down ropes on the most dangerous parts of the trail, had dropped far back, helping to tow one of the group's ailing members. The delays caused the team to fall behind schedule, but it pushed on regardless. On the descent, the wind began to howl and snow lashed the mountain. Many climbers barely made it back to their encampment, and those who did woke to find that Hall and several others had lost their lives. At the heart of the breakdown was the fact that no one felt comfortable speaking up when the team was clearly contradicting its own rules.

Setting the Stage: Build Trust and Rapport

The fateful Everest expedition shows that, before teams can solve problems, they have to create a space for giving and receiving honest feedback: the final step in checking alignment. Teammates should feel that they can speak up about issues, admit mistakes, and ask for help without being shamed or penalized by the group.

Amy Edmondson calls this "psychological safety." Her research demonstrates that teams with this characteristic communicate more openly, share information more freely, and ultimately make better decisions.

In fact, many studies suggest that open communication is more important to teams than intelligence. For example, in one influential experiment, groups with high collective IQ underperformed on exercises that involve brainstorming, problem solving, and moral reasoning. Higher-performing groups had three things in common: (1) Inclusive group dialogue; (2) High emotional intelligence (EI), and (3) A greater number of women (who score higher than men on EI assessments). In a team setting, communication and interpersonal understanding frequently trump smarts.

Dr. Mario Moussa, Dr. Derek Newberry and Madeline Boyer are the authors of Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance, from which this excerpt was adapted. Dr. Moussa teaches in the Executive Programs at Wharton School of Executive Education. Dr. Newberry and Boyer are lecturers at the Wharton School of Business and Senior Consultants at Percipient Partners. For more information, please visit, www.moussaconsulting.com and www.percipientpartners.com and connect with the authors on Twitter, @Committed_Teams. This selection was excerpted with permission by the publisher Wiley, from Committed Teams: Three Steps to Inspiring Passion and Performance, by Mario Moussa, Derek Newbery and Madeline Boyer. Copyright (c) 2016. All rights reserved. This book is available at all booksellers.