Himalayan Climbers Can Help You Build a Successful Team
October 19, 2016

Himalayan Climbers Can Help You Build a Successful Team

 |  By: Mike Opperman

Nearly 70 years of data chronicling Mount Everest climbing excursions has uncovered an important component of a successful team. Data shows that effectiveness of teams may be hurt when team member capabilities are downplayed to promote group cohesion.

The results of an unpublished study, reported in a Wall Street Journal article, were based on research conducted on a database of 38,818 Himalayan climbers involved in 5,214 expeditions along a mountain range that spans several countries and includes Mount Everest. The researcher team, led by Jennifer Chatman, management professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley, scrutinized detailed accounts in the Himalayan Database, which has compiled attempted ascents dating back to 1950.

Researchers share that whether a climbing group reached a summit depended heavily on how members handled their differences.  Groups that overlooked members’ nationalities and focused more on skill in assembling teams had greater success reaching summits. More climbers died during expeditions when their group ignored differences in critical skills, including Himalayan climbing experience. This happened more often when the group emphasized cohesion and failed to recognize the presence of novices with limited capabilities. Chatman called this “a perfect recipe for tragedy.”

In Chatman’s view, the research offers important lessons for companies. Managers should be careful about how much they “encourage teams to be cohesive because it can blind them to the very diversity that’s there,” she says. Also, work groups should figure out which diverse attributes are relevant to a specific task and keep those that are useful. She also advises teams to play less attention to visible attributes such as race, nationality or gender because “those are not typically closely related to task accomplishment.”