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What Himalayan Mountain Climbers Can Teach Us About Office Hierarchy

Hierarchy can both improve and undermine a team. Be sure all your colleagues have a voice in the boardroom, or face the consequences.

What Himalayan Mountain Climbers Can Teach Us About Office Hierarchy
[Photo: Flickr user Sharada Prasad CS]

What do mountain climbers, surgeons, and business leaders have in common? They all are members of high-stakes teams, and hierarchical structures within these groups can both benefit and devastate them.

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Fast Company spoke with Adam Galinsky and Eric Anicich, management professors at Columbia Business School and authors of a December 2014 study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to find out why hierarchy is a mixed bag, and what organizations can do to strengthen their teams in high-stakes situations.

“Hierarchy–structurally and as a cultural value–can both help and hurt team performance,” the authors write. On the one hand, clearly defined roles and coordination can help teams work together efficiently. On the other, lower-ranking team members may feel uncomfortable speaking up, even when facing life-threatening conditions.

The authors studied data from 5,104 group expeditions to the Himalayas over the past 100 years–totaling 30,625 climbers from 56 countries. The results were surprising. While hierarchical countries had more climbers reach the summit, they also had more climbers die on the trip.

One climber noted all Himalayan expeditions are similarly structured, but what varies is how participants interact and communicate–which can be the difference between life and death.

“Our findings show that hierarchy can simultaneously improve and undermine group performance,” Galinsky says. “The key to finding the right balance in a hierarchy is identifying the barriers that keep lower-ranking team members from voicing their perspective and providing them with opportunities for empowerment, like owning a task or having authority over a specific initiative.”

In another high-stakes situation, a surgeon coordinates the team in the operating room, but lower-power members of the team need to speak up. Galinsky points to studies by Johns Hopkins University that found serious complications occur when nurses weren’t comfortable challenging doctors during surgeries. As a result, operating room protocols have changed to give nurses ownership of procedure checklists.

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Here are Galinsky and Anicich’s four tips to strengthen your team:

1. Set The Tone

“When gathering information, leaders should not express their own opinions first,” Galinsky says. That’s because others may subconsciously adapt their own statements to what’s already been said. Instead, the authors suggest asking for others’ perspectives, starting with the least powerful in the room and working their way to the most powerful.

2. Lay Some Ground Rules

Another technique is to implement ground rules for communication. Earlier this month, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, penned an op-ed piece in the New York Times suggesting companies institute a “no interruption rule” to increase the number of women speaking up during meetings.

Galinsky notes that studies have shown that people who are lower on the hierarchical scale are interrupted more often than those higher on the scale. By ensuring everyone has a voice, companies gain valuable insight.

3. Create A Psychologically Safe Environment

People are afraid of saying the wrong thing, Galinsky says. There’s a fear of speaking out because they believe a consensus has been reached, or that aggressive personalities may be upset if they believe subordinates aren’t showing the proper respect or deference.

Candor, a free app that allows people to share their opinions anonymously during meetings, can be used to brainstorm ideas, vote, or make decisions free from concern about what others think.

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4. Find The Right Balance

Every organization has found you can’t eliminate hierarchy completely, Galinsky says. He points to Google’s short-lived experiment that removed managers in favor of relying on its smart and innovative employees. The company quickly learned they need people to set the strategy, divide labor, coach, and steer the team in the right direction, Galinsky notes.

Galinsky points to Ideo, a design and innovation consulting firm, as an example of a company that has a good balance. At the idea generation stage, there’s no hierarchy, and everyone contributes ideas.

Galinsky notes companies will often have a process leader to ensure the “no interruption rule” is being followed. When the team moves on to the prototype stage, hierarchy returns to bring form and focus to the process.

About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in Entrepreneur.com, Reuters.com, Today.com, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, BlogHer.com and Fox Business.

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