3 Lessons in Team EQ from a Plan Gone Wrong

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.

Their Plan

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.

Their Climb

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.

To learn more about increasing your team’s emotional intelligence, and TalentSmart’s products and programs to facilitate team development, contact TalentSmart at 888-818-SMART or visit https://www.talentsmart.com/contact-us/.

The Secret to Team Performance (And 5 Strategies to Achieve it Virtually)

When Google HR hired a group of psychologists and sociologists to look for patterns in their highest performing teams, they thought team success had something to do with the mixture of personalities, backgrounds, and motivations within the team. After almost 200 team interviews, they still hadn’t found any discernable patterns to confirm their theory. Instead, they found that successful teams all shared one thing in common: a high degree of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is a sense of trust teams establish where people do not feel insecure or embarrassed by the possibility of failure. Studies show that on teams where people feel psychologically safe, people are more willing to share their perspective, take calculated risks, ask questions, admit mistakes, make jokes, challenge each other, and learn from one another.

Of course, developing this degree of trust within a team takes effort. With teams switching to virtual work, the effort to establish trust narrows to time spent on video calls, which can feel more convoluted and distant. To help get your virtual team moving in the right direction, we’ve compiled five concrete ways to build psychological safety in virtual meetings.

Recreate team chatter. Chatting around the table or in the hallway before a meeting doesn’t just pass the time as the group files in. Chatter actually quiets stress in the brain, relaxes people, and builds their courage to share later on during the meeting. To recapture your team’s lost chatter, manufacture it. Kick off meetings by having each person share something unrelated to work. Host a virtual happy hour or online game night. Close meetings by sharing weekend plans. The idea is to build group comfort and get people talking freely and just for fun. Then, when the discussion turns from light to consequential, people are already feeling more comfortable and therefore poised to contribute.

Break out in small groups. Who is quick to speak out among the 32 faces across two screens? No one, usually.People feel safer in small groups, and when people feel safe, they are more likely to open up. And this opening up in small groups actually translates back to the big group. When people report out to the big group, they tend to stand firmer with what they discussed in their breakout. That’s partially because the representative wants to stay true to their discussion group, and it’s also because they feel more supported by the group than they would feel speaking on their own behalf. Breakouts also prevent social loafing in bigger team meetings where many people feel that their individual contributions “aren’t worth the group’s time.”

Map the check-in process. Research shows that rules around communication reduce uncertainty and help build trust. Don’t just assign work vaguely with an arbitrary deadline. Agree to check-in points, check-in subgroups, and a process for completion. This helps hold people accountable as the task moves from hand to hand.

Reward people for risk-taking, candor, and feedback. Be sure to reinforce teammates who show vulnerability and risk-taking, even if you might not agree. Some teams even designate someone to “tell it like it is.” This person may call out things left unsaid, play “devil’s advocate,” and point out when other team members hog the stage, stay too quiet, or criticize unconstructively.

Break the meeting routine. Regularly scheduled meetings and check-ins can easily become routine, possibly becoming monotonous. To avoid people zoning out and counting the minutes, break the cycle: Cancel a meeting occasionally, hold an impromptu team meeting to celebrate a goal reached, call together a small group to devise a plan for a difficult problem, or even try scheduling monthly one-on-ones between randomly assigned team members to build internal relationships.

From Insights to Action. These strategies for creating team trust and safety may seem easy, but the challenge lies in upholding them over time. Commit to these strategies and give them time to grow into a natural part of how your team works together. Each one can make a big difference in your team dynamic and performance.

To learn more about increasing your team’s emotional intelligence, and TalentSmart’s products and programs to facilitate team development, contact TalentSmart at 888-818-SMART or visit https://www.talentsmart.com/contact-us/.

The Case for Team Emotional Intelligence (Team EQ)

As organizations increasingly invest in emotional intelligence (EQ) skills training, what should they do about this important fact? The bulk of work at organizations is done by teams, and teams are made up of people with varying levels of emotional intelligence. The answer is clear: Offer your teams the opportunity to develop emotional intelligence skills at the team level.

EQ at the team level means members of the group are able to interact well with each other, and cross-functionally with people in other departments, on other teams, and even outside the organization. Teams whose members recognize unproductive emotions when they surface and manage them constructively will overcome interpersonal and inter-team challenges to achieve peak performance. High EQ teams make better decisions, foster a positive working environment, and adapt better to unplanned surprises (i.e., work moves to virtual, people come and go, priorities change, or competition grows).

The 4 Core Team EQ Skills

The team that handles their emotions well and builds healthy relationships is tapping into four core team EQ skills: emotion awareness, emotion management, internal relationship management, and external relationship management.

On a high EQ team, better awareness of emotions (emotion awareness) opens doors for team members to respond better (emotion management). By fostering positive working relationships within the team (internal relationship management), team members are better equipped to influence others and build relationships outside the team (external relationship management).

Research shows that teams that continually hone these skills can increase their ability to achieve goals, collaborate cross-functionally, build trust, establish group cohesion, complete tasks quickly, and manage stress during emotionally charged situations.

Team EQ Skills in Action

On nursing teams, for example, a high degree of emotion awareness and management is necessary to navigate notoriously fast-paced, high-stress tasks and decisions without butting heads with one another (internal relationship management) or coming across as callous or uncaring to patients and their families (external relationship management). Nursing teams high in team EQ will be better equipped to support each other through an extended shift or an overflowing unit, and to effectively manage handoffs with other teams to work quickly and collaboratively toward positive results. A recent study found that teams of nurses higher in group emotion management were not only more cohesive, but also that their bottom line patient care ratings were higher.

Team EQ is the Foundation of Critical Skills
The reason team emotional intelligence is so crucial to a team’s success is that it supports the skills that are critical for success. For example, a team’s ability to recognize and understand what a teammate is feeling increases that team’s ability to listen, empathize, communicate, and influence that teammate. Similarly, building awareness of their emotional reactions to pressure will make it easier for a team to manage change flexibly and speedily while still showing respect and trust along the way.

From Insights to Action. Perhaps the most important finding in EQ research is that team EQ skills can be developed. With practice, teams who measure low in team EQ can work to improve their team EQ behaviors within six months to a year. These findings hold true for teams in various professions and across industries, all over the world.

To learn more about increasing your team’s emotional intelligence, and TalentSmart’s products and programs to facilitate team development, contact TalentSmart at 888-818-SMART or visit https://www.talentsmart.com/contact-us/