Tuesday, January 27, 2015

What Happens to Hierarchical Teams in the Himalayas?

On this blizzard day, it only seems appropriate to draft a blog post about mountaineering in the Himalayas.  As many of my blog readers know, I've written in the past about why and how expedition teams behave on Mount Everest.  With regard to the infamous 1996 tragedy involving the Mountain Madness and Adventure Consultants expeditions, I argued that the teams lacked psychological safety.  As a result, people did not speak when they had concerns about the teams' plans, climbers' health, and the mountain conditions.  I explained that the status hierarchy in the teams diminished psychological safety (though other factors also decreased psychological safety).  The failure to speak up contributed to the tragedy on the mountain in May 1996, though it certainly was not the only cause of the deaths that occurred.  

Now, in a new paper, Eric M. Anicich, Roderick I. Swaab, and Adam D. Galinsky have written a paper about expedition teams in the Himalayas.  They find that hierarchy has positive and negative effects on expedition teams.  It may help teams reach the summit, but it may also kill people.  In fact, that's exactly what occurred in 1996.  Many people reached the top, but a number of climbers died.  It reminds me of what mountaineers David Breashears and Ed Viesturs have told me repeatedly: getting to the top is optional; getting back down safely is mandatory.  In fact, many people die coming down the mountain, rather than on the way to the summit.  Thus, while getting to the summit may seem like an accomplishment of these hierarchical teams, I'm not sure that's the case.  Getting to the summit is not a success.   Getting back down safely is the real measure of success.  Here's an excerpt from the abstract of their paper:

Specifically, we offer empirical evidence that hierarchical cultural values affect the outcomes of teams in high-stakes environments through group processes. Experimental data from a sample of expert mountain climbers from 27 countries confirmed that climbers expect that a hierarchical culture leads to improved team coordination among climbing teams, but impaired psychological safety and information sharing compared with an egalitarian culture. An archival analysis of 30,625 Himalayan mountain climbers from 56 countries on 5,104 expeditions found that hierarchy both elevated and killed in the Himalayas: Expeditions from more hierarchical countries had more climbers reach the summit, but also more climbers die along the way.

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