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Workplace culture lessons from the ‘96 Mount Everest disaster

Workplace culture lessons from the ‘96 Mount Everest disaster
January 16, 2019 John

In May 1996, eight climbers died on Mount Everest after getting caught in a blizzard during their descent from the summit.

This tragedy was part of one of the deadliest seasons on Everest. Many different authors and opinion writers have tried to make sense of how two teams of climbers, led by some of the world’s most experienced mountaineers, could fall into such a horrific tragedy. One famous account is from journalist and mountain climber, Jon Krakauer, in his book, Into Thin Air.

Drawing on accounts like Krakauer’s, we’ve put together three workplace culture lessons that teams and organisations can learn from the 1996 Mount Everest disaster.

Goals should not be dogma

Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mt. Everest Disaster by D. Christopher Kayes (2006-10-17)

On the day of the disaster, 34 climbers from three teams were attempting to summit Everest. Confusion ensued and safety ropes were not laid, causing a bottleneck of climbers. The safe turnaround time passed, yet climbers were still pushing on to the summit two hours after the turnaround time. Climbers were reaching the top of Everest, only to have to attempt the incredibly difficult 3000 feet descent in the dark with rapidly depleting oxygen and an encroaching blizzard.

Dr Chris Kayes, from the George Washington University School of Business, in his book, Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mt. Everest Disaster, believes that the climbers’ goal of reaching the summit became dogma. He argues that the climbers became tunnel-visioned in their single focus on reaching the summit. Their goal became a fact for themselves, especially since they worked so hard and paid so much for the trip, and they weren’t going to give up on that goal only 200 feet from the top of the world. As such, Kayes argues, the dogmatic pursuit of their goals became a threat to their lives.

Goals are not facts. In any team or organisation, it is important to be open to evidence and opinions that could jeopardise your goals. If evidence contrary to your goals arise, it is important to change or even completely drop your goals. Be open to change, reassessment and even the uncertainty of never achieving your desires.

Don’t be in it for yourself

Writing for Outside magazine, Jon Krakauer claimed Anatoli Boukreev, one of the commercial guides for the American climbing team caught in the disaster, ascended Everest without supplemental oxygen and descended back to camp several hours before his clients. Krakauer claimed Boukreev was in the climb for himself and did not act in his clients’ best interests. This meant his clients, who were generally inexperienced mountaineers, were left to perform much of the dangerous descent by themselves. While Krakauer’s claims are controversial and Boukreev’s rescue attempts saved many lives, this does have two important lessons for workplace culture.

The first is that individuals who seem to be in it for themselves should not be tolerated in a team. Risky behaviours should be addressed and workplaces need to foster a culture of dedication to the team. The second lesson is the importance of duty. Any workplace’s top priority should be the duty assigned to them, whether that is duty of care to the client or a duty of responsibility to each other. It is important for teams to recognise what their duty is and to constantly analyse and work with that duty.

Voice your doubts

One of the most important lessons from the 1996 Everest disaster is the importance of voicing your doubts. Krakauer noted that several clients expressed concern about their summit plan, especially due to the high number of climbers and bad weather reports. While expressed in private, none of the clients discussed their concerns with the expedition guides, with Krakauer claiming the clients adopted a “tourist” attitude of blindly following the team leaders.

Krakauer also wrote that the expedition leaders did not voice their own concerns to their clients. The commercialisation of Everest climbs meant the guides felt an overwhelming pressure to perform as successful business people, not as responsible mountaineering guides. Clients expected the guides to lead them to the summit, and guides were increasingly ignoring risks so that clients would be satisfied with their expedition. This lack of honest communication meant that doubts were left unvoiced, which had deadly consequences.

For any team to be successful, members have to raise questions if they see a risk with a course of action. This requires team leaders to be open to dissenting opinions and to encourage open discussion. Doing so can be challenging, but a good way to start is for managers and leaders to have an open-door policy.

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Does your workplace culture need to be refreshed? To find out more about the workplace culture lessons from the ‘96 Everest disaster we highly recommend picking up a copy of ‘Into Thin Air’ by Jon Krakauer. And, if you haven’t already seen it Everest, the movie, is a masterpiece based on the event, and well worth a watch.

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