Whether it’s in the office, on Zoom, on a mountain, or in a boat, the performance of a team lies in that team’s ability to effectively recognize, understand, and manage its emotions. A climbing team in Yosemite found this out as they ventured out to climb Cathedral Peak. First described in Laurence Gonzales’ book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, here is a close look at their climb with attention to the role emotions played in their team’s performance.
David, his brother Rob, and their friend Steven were all set to climb Cathedral Peak in Yosemite. They each came into the climb with varying degrees of climbing experience. The route required six rope lengths and Rob had never climbed more than one. That said, the 10,940-foot peak is considered relatively easy, well within his capabilities. As an experienced rock climber, David approached new climbs with his existing mental model of how climbing worked for him. He knew, for example, what types of ropes, anchors, harnesses, carabiners, and quickdraws to use in different situations. The experienced one, David devised the plan for the group. There was another significant element at play though: David approached the climb with a set of positive memories and emotions from past successful climbs. These memories and emotions motivated him to climb again, to try this new challenge with his brother and his friend. Feeling good, he anticipated favorable conditions and success in reaching Cathedral Peak. Due largely to their trust in David, Rob and Steven also felt confident and excited.
Of course, things did not go exactly as planned. The climbers woke up at 4am to find that someone had stolen their food. The plan had been to hike to the base of the peak by 8am, but it took two hours to buy food and this pressured them to catch up to their original schedule. They estimated they could still make it to the summit by 3pm, but to do so, they would have to cut everything a bit closer than originally planned.
They checked the weather board at the rangers’ station and noticed it hadn’t been updated. The day before, the board had forecasted good weather, and a cloudless sky seemed to confirm that. Caught up in their excitement and urge to catch up to their schedule, they ignored an important possibility: Mountainous terrain lends itself to rapid, unpredictable changes in weather. They started their ascent two hours late at 10am and felt good, moving up the face relatively quickly. Once they’d made it two lengths up, a thick layer of storm clouds filled in across the valley. They’d been awake eight hours at this point, and each foot of altitude meant less oxygen to their brains. Feeling the stress growing, friction surfaced between them about the plan. The climb was only getting more complicated, but they ultimately agreed to stick to the plan.
Rain filled in across the valley, and they paused again to discuss whether they should continue. They agreed to press for the top. With emotions and adrenaline running high, they felt driven by an overwhelming impulse for forward-moving action. They agreed to stick to their goal, to press for the top, but now in a nervous race against the weather. The weather caught up to them at the sixth and final length. The rock wall slickened, and hail obscured their vision and chilled their hands. David made it to the summit, but Rob and Steven had one last stretch. Suddenly, Rob and Steven felt all their hair stand on end. A thunderhead had locked onto their bodies, and there was nothing they could do. “Everything around us started to buzz,” they described later. “It was the most terrifying sound I ever heard.” Acting entirely on instinct, Rob and Steven scrambled up the wet face to an overhanging rock in case they were struck. Lightening slammed Rob into the wall in front of him. He heard Steven moan and saw David up at the summit, unconscious. Rob scrambled recklessly up the rest of the face to the summit to help his brother. It was getting late, and they had no way to start a fire, no way to treat David, and no waterproof clothing. What saved their lives in the end, was another climber at the base, planning to climb the next day. He heard them above yelling and radioed for help. They did all survive.
The emotional dynamic in this team nearly killed them. Here are three important team EQ lessons in their near-death experience:
Team EQ Lesson #1: Emotions, good and bad, can get in the way of a team’s performance. David, Rob, and Steven were so caught up in their excitement about the climb that they overlooked multiple signs of potential trouble: the missing forecast at the ranger station, the clouds filling in, and even the rain across the valley. If they had stepped back from their excitement, they may have waited to ensure a safe weather forecast. At organizations, this might include releasing a new product not fully tested for safety, or announcing a deal that isn’t yet signed.
Team EQ Lesson #2: Norms set the tone, especially in times of confusion. Their plan, though carefully devised, didn’t include a bailout. As a result, they put their lives at risk for a climb they could have done the next day. At organizations, neglecting an “escape plan” can result in work being rushed to a bad finish because the group refused to reevaluate their work. It can also lead to unnecessary or rigid rule-following and enforcement.
Team EQ Lesson #3: Leaders, exercise humility; followers, disagree openly. David was the leader, and as such, he should have been the first person to raise doubt when he realized they were facing real danger. He carries the responsibility to know that his enthusiasm would be contagious to Rob and Steven who relied on him as the experienced leader. Although Rob and Steven were less experienced, two voiced concerns might have sparked more prudence in David, and earlier. This same dynamic happens in organizations. When a leader ignores changing conditions or fails to consider potential risks in a plan, and the team doesn’t feel comfortable voicing their critique, avoidable mistakes will occur.
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