Management Lessons from the Pinnacle of Human Endeavor

Management Lessons from the Pinnacle of Human Endeavor

For mountaineering and workplace teams, cooperation may be a dangerous symptom of groupthink says Prof. Jennifer Chatman, PhD 88

By Andrew Hill, Financial Times

In his book Into Thin Air, the harrowing account of the ill-fated 1996 expeditions up Mount Everest, mountaineer Jon Krakauer recalls his sense of foreboding as he helicoptered into the Himalayas with an ad hoc team of amateurs.

“I attributed my growing unease to the fact that I’d never climbed as a member of such a large group—a group of complete strangers, no less,” he writes. “One climber’s actions can affect the welfare of the entire team. The consequences of a poorly tied knot, a stumble, a dislodged rock, or some other careless deed are as likely to be felt by the perpetrator’s colleagues as the perpetrator . . . . I suspected that each of my teammates hoped as fervently as I that [Rob] Hall [their professional guide] had been careful to weed out clients of dubious ability and would have the means to protect each of us from one another’s shortcomings.”

In fact, eight climbers died in one day—including Hall—when storms closed in on the many groups, from first-timers and “tourists” to hardened professionals, who were trying to make it to the summit and back.

Confusion and controversy shrouded what happened in the “death zone” above 8,000 meters in 1996, but Krakauer’s concern that the individual actions of one team member could doom the others should have been overlaid by another worry. Collective dedication to a goal can itself be dangerous if it covers up important individual differences, according to a new study, with fascinating implications for how lower-altitude teams are built, motivated, and run.

Berkeley Haas Prof. Jennifer Chatman and her co-authors studied records of more than 60 years of expeditions to the Nepalese Himalayas. It is a rich bank of information—about 40,000 climbers from some 80 countries. Unlike workplace teams, these groups had a clear goal: to reach their summit. They shared one objective and unambiguous measure of failure: the death of a team member.

By parsing this sometimes grim data set and combining it with teamwork experiments, the researchers found that a collective mindset helped diverse teams ignore differences, such as nationality, that were not relevant to their task. But when the collective spirit overrode vital individual differences of, say, experience, the result could be fatal. For example, teams that got into trouble at altitude and assumed that all members had the same expertise as their most knowledgeable climbers sometimes took risks that put lives in jeopardy.

Lessons from extreme situations may seem irrelevant to staffers discussing projects in air-conditioned corporate conference rooms. But Chatman says the research suggests perhaps “the whole team-building fad has overshot the mark,” by placing too much emphasis on cohesion. Lives may not be on the line, but teams that do not value and recognize their differences could be less effective.

There are few more pressing management challenges than how to run diverse teams. Big companies are experimenting with ways to go beyond traditional recruitment in order to widen the pool of staff from which they fish. Deutsche Bank, for instance, is exploring behavioral profiling and testing in its hiring. In her book What Works—shortlisted for this year’s FT Business Book of the Year—Iris Bohnet focuses on the difficulties of achieving, then reaping, the advantages of gender balance in the workplace. “Getting it right is not easy,” she writes of the task of designing appropriately balanced, creative, and productive teams.

In the first place, managers need to assess diversity correctly. They then need to set out a clear, collective mission. But they must also identify which of the differences between the team members—nationality, gender, race—have little bearing on the task at hand, and which, such as specific skills and experience, are highly relevant. Cohesion and cooperation may look like virtues, but they could be symptoms of groupthink. The greater the collective will of the team—and the higher the stakes—the less likely people are to dissent, because, in Chatman’s words, “speaking up about risks is like saying you have no confidence in the group.”

In the workplace, these findings place even more burden on the team leader, for whom dissent and friction are unlikely signals of success. But as Chatman says: “Maybe we need to live with a little more discomfort and difference to get these valuable outcomes.”

Emphasizing the ways in which team members are not the same could increase tension within the team. It could mean the group takes longer to reach its goal. But those would be small prices to pay to improve the overall performance—and avoid disaster.

From the Financial Times. 12 September 2016 . “Management Lessons from the Pinnacle of Human Endeavor,” Andrew Hill. © The Financial Times Limited 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Illustration by Dulce Lopez.

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