I am about to climb Mount Everest. And as a management professor (Scott speaking here) this inevitably has led me to wonder how team dynamics will play out on the mountain — as my life may depend on it. Before you go worrying, I have been training for years, have extensive climbing experience, and am going with reputably one of the world's best guiding companies.
Still, I don't have to tell you that the stakes of successful teamwork are high when ascending the highest mountain in the world. With this in mind, I recently sat down with David Morton, a world-class mountaineer (and coauthor of this post) who has led teams to the summit of Mount Everest six times. In light of our different backgrounds, we found common ground in what it takes to build and lead teams up Everest, and how those leadership lessons apply to the high-risk, high-uncertainty environments that business leaders find themselves in today.
Know your team's goals and stress points. Everest is high-stakes not only because of the inherent dangers, but also because nobody wants to fail after investing years of training (and in some cases, their life savings) in this journey. Not too dissimilar from high-potentials who fixate on the "corner office," many climbers are completely gripped by the idea of "Everest" and have an irrational dream about what it means to summit the mountain. Other people play down the difficulty — the dangers and the accomplishment — acting as if it were not a big deal. You must assess and monitor where people fall on this spectrum. Do this by encouraging transparency, starting with yourself. Communicate your goals for the team and your personal motives. Make it clear how achieving the team goal can enable individuals to achieve their personal goals, and then be honest about what individual goals will not be met (including your own).
Cultivate psychological safety. In high-stakes environments, fear is your biggest enemy to success. There will always be unexpected events and setbacks, and fear keeps hidden the information your team needs to be resilient. You need team members to be honest and speak up even if their point of view is unpopular. On Everest, there are many self-protective reasons for withholding information. Reporting a health concern might result in being seen as weak. Inquiring about a specific climbing technique could appear as lacking adequate skills. Expressing uncertainty about the team leader's plan could be seen as defiant, inappropriate, or not being a "team player." So, how do you ensure team members speak up, share concerns, and question assumptions? Keep these strategies in mind:
- Minimize status differences. David, for example, minimizes discussions about differences in experience levels among team members. Scott worked with an executive who would intentionally not attend brainstorming meetings with his direct reports, so they wouldn't feel intimidated by his rank and hold back ideas.
- Tell stories, even ones that make you vulnerable. Sharing personal experiences where you made mistakes is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it makes clear that nobody is perfect and creates a norm of sharing in the team.
- Engage one-on-one. Trust is essential. Find at least one or two commonalities with each team member, and demonstrate a commitment to personal engagement and consideration.
- Be inclusive and forgiving. Invite and appreciate others' contributions to group decision-making. When mistakes occur, demonstrate a commitment to forgiveness. Focus on learning, not reprimanding. Mistakes will occur, just make sure not to make the same one twice.
Give away information. In high-stakes environments, err on the side of too much information. More information helps the team feel engaged in the process, and reduces anxiety and stress. For example, David makes it clear from the very beginning how decisions will be made. There will be times when he must make an executive decision, but it is clear that his decision must be informed by input from all team members. With few exceptions, David shares the information he has as team leader, explains how that information is being used to make a decision, and what options are being considered based on the available information. As a result, the team feels engaged and ultimately more committed to the final decision.
Be decisive but patient. In situations with limited time and information, leaders need to be decisive and clear but should not feel compelled to immediately make a call. Imagine being at 28,000 feet with unpredictable weather, limited communication, and incomplete information. The team is anxious. A bias for action is necessary to accomplish the team goal, protect the group, and maintain the team's confidence in your authority. Yet, at the same time, the leader cannot afford to become wrapped up in a very emotional, high-anxiety situation. You can prepare by consistently reinforcing "what if" scenarios in advance — which enable you and your team to more effectively deal with the uncertainty. But remember, under extreme stress, not everyone will recall and be able to act on those scenarios.
The best way to clear your head for sound decisions is to sit down and step back. Find a space where you can think without feeling pressured to make an immediate decision. On one expedition, bad weather moved in and forced Scott's team to decide whether to continue to the summit or turn around, less than an hour from the top. While team members debated and reinforced their commitment to summiting, the team leader sat down in the snow and was silent for a few minutes. He found a space to think despite the chaos, and upon his call, we turned around. (Thank you, Garrett.)
Stay flexible. It is impossible to lead when you are overly attached to how things are supposed to happen. You had a vision about how things were going to work based on the previous day's information. You planned and strategized. The next day, everything changes. On Everest, it is a team member getting sick, the weather changing, or another team needing your help. In business, it is unexpected changes to a project, variable customer demands, or sudden shifts in the market. You cannot afford to be attached to the plan simply because you invested in it previously. You must quickly identify the need for change, explain the change even if it means admitting a mistake or misjudgment, and present the new plan. Whether it is on Everest or in business, your team's ability to thrive and survive in high-stakes environments depends on you staying flexible and adapting in real time.
Follow Scott's journey on Mt. Everest on Twitter (@scottderue), and at the Alpine Ascents Everest 2013 blog. Follow David's climbs this year @davidcmorton.