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Dylan Walsh


What Climbing Expeditions Tell Us About Teamwork

Think about the mentality you infuse into the project

Published: Thursday, September 26, 2019 - 12:03

In principle, the mountaineer’s work is simple: “To win the game he has first to reach the mountain’s summit,” said George Mallory, who took part in Britain’s first three attempts on Everest during the 1920s. “But, further, he has to descend in safety.”

The tension between these two goals—summiting while also surviving—makes the Himalayas context especially interesting and relevant for companies also balancing multiple goals, says Lindred Leura Greer, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

“Mountaineering provides an interesting setting, and an extreme one, in which you’re trying to win while also trying to mitigate loss,” Greer says. “This looks a lot like, say, a startup, where you’re trying to maximize to become a unicorn while at the same time trying to make sure the small details don’t pull you under.”

Given this analogue, Greer and other researchers used mountain climbing as a lens to explore longstanding assumptions about group performance. For decades, academics have suggested a straightforward link between a group’s solidarity and its success: The more a group operates with a single mind, the better its execution.

But this is true only under certain conditions, according to a forthcoming article in Organization Science. The paper was co-authored by Greer, Jennifer Chatman, and Bernadette Doerr of Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley; and Eliot Sherman of London Business School.

When the goal is simply to summit a mountain, the researchers found, a collectivistic focus within the group is essential. But when circumstances turn dire and the goal shifts to mere survival, then differences within a group ought to be exploited.

Balancing collectivism and individualism

Fundamental to Greer’s insight is the recognition that summiting and safety are two distinct types of goals.

Summiting is a “conjunctive” task—that is, it requires cooperation, and its success is determined by the weakest link. Groups must jointly decide whether to proceed to the peak.

Safety, by comparison, is a “disjunctive” task, in which the party’s most expert member is responsible for success. When survival is at stake, choosing the best route and knowing when to turn back require deference to an experienced leader, not negotiation among group members.

Drawing on this distinction, Greer and her colleagues build a theory to explain when and how group unity either enhances or impairs performance. In cases where a group must tackle conjunctive tasks, a collective mentality is useful because it reduces the diversity that members perceive in their group and, that way, increases cohesion.

But this same effect can harm performance when groups face a disjunctive task. Sometimes differences, like levels of expertise, ought to be highlighted, not erased. In such cases, emphasis on cooperation and group decision-making can actually undermine the fact that one opinion deserves to be elevated above others.

“On the one hand, if you’re trying to keep everybody together and not rock the boat, then collectivism can really help people fixate on what they have in common rather than their differences,” Greer says. “But this comes with a dark side when it drives people to ignore information differences they should be paying attention to.”

To test this theory, Greer and her colleagues looked to the Himalayas.

When the goal is simply to summit, embrace a collectivist mindset; when safety is paramount, let the experts lead. | Reuters/Stringer

The view from the mountains

Elizabeth Hawley was long a fixture of Nepal who interviewed almost every Himalayan expedition during the last half-century. From this work she compiled the Himalayan Database, which contains comprehensive information on 59,975 climbers who attempted ascents in 8,184 expeditions between 1950 and 2013. Greer and her colleagues used this database to study the conjunctive task of summiting alongside the disjunctive task of avoiding climber deaths.

Ultimately, effective leaders... need to match the hierarchy to the task at hand.
—Lindred Leura Greer

When studying successful summits, they identified the diversity of each team—how many nationalities were represented—and then estimated the degree to which a collectivist mentality defined each team. To get at this second measure, they used a well-known index that ranks 102 countries based on how much the culture reinforces a collective mentality. (Guatemala is the most collectivist; the United States is the least.) Based on the nationalities represented on each team, Greer and her colleagues estimated overall collectivism. According to their theory, diverse teams with a greater collective mentality would be more likely to summit a mountain.

When studying the safety of expeditions, they looked at the avoidance of climber deaths. This figure was matched against the varying levels of expertise on each team as well as its general collective mentality, as defined above. In this case, according to the theory, teams with high levels of collectivism would be more likely to overlook expertise, and therefore more likely to encounter climber deaths.

In both cases, the results supported the theory: Collectivism boosted summiting when national diversity was high, and it reduced safety when diversity in expertise was high. “This collective mentality proved useful in masking national differences,” Greer says. “But it was also blinding to good and important differences, like expertness, which could have mitigated risk.”

Crashing on the moon

They complemented these findings with a lab experiment in which teams of three had to make their way from a simulated crash landing on the moon to a nearby mother ship. In the simulation, oxygen was limited, and of the two available routes, one was shorter but riskier. By manipulating the collectivist mentality, diversity, and level of expertise on each team, Greer and her colleagues arrived at the same results: Collectivism helped teams divvy up oxygen by papering over diversity, but it harmed groups in the selection of the best route by encouraging people to ignore expertise on their team.

As it turns out, most tasks, most of the time, can be defined by whether they require people to work together or whether they rely on individual expertise. Given this, leaders need to think carefully not only about the groups they build for different challenges, but also about the mentality they infuse into the project at hand.

“If you’re going to host a town hall to inspire employees of your company to work together in achieving the company’s mission, then you want to encourage team values. Have everybody wear the same T-shirt,” Greer says. “But if you’re trying to make a strategic decision within a team, then make sure to highlight the differences in the room. Call people out based on their expertise.”

The study highlights a critical but often overlooked taxonomy for defining what kind of mentality is best suited to accomplish specific group tasks. It also raises the challenge of figuring out how to simultaneously promote shared objectives without tossing out the value inherent in diversity.

“Ultimately, effective leaders must be able to make diversity salient when it’s needed and then focus on collectivism when that is needed,” Greer says. “They need to match the hierarchy to the task at hand.”

First published May 29, 2019, in Insights by Stanford Graduate School of Business.


About The Author

Dylan Walsh’s picture

Dylan Walsh

Dylan Walsh is an experienced editor and writer with a background in science/environment. He has contributed to The New Yorker online, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Orion, and Yale e360, among other publications. Walsh is interested in publishing, writing, and editing opportunities, ideally related to criminal justice or science.