In the backcountry, who you choose to ski with is often as important as the terrain you choose to ski. In this next excerpt from Rob Coppolillo’s Ski Guide Manual, he digs into the psychology behind mistake making in the backcountry and ways to foster positive group dynamics. Want more? Pre-order the Ski Guide Manual.
I keep mentioning “functioning” teams and warning about “breakdowns.” Let’s really consider what kind of team we want. I’d argue that we need more than buddies “who have my back.” Sure, that’s part of it, but you also need a diverse gang, people willing to disagree respectfully, communicate effectively, commit to learning, and agree on a collaborative process. Guiding, climbing with friends, even just a road trip to go skiing — if we can’t agree on the “how” of the activity, there’s little hope of putting together a resilient, capable team, no matter what we’re doing.
Talk early, talk lots
Sexton and Helmreich, writing in the Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments, state, “NASA researchers analyzed the causes of jet transport accidents and incidents between 1968 and 1976 . . . and concluded that pilot error was more likely to reflect failures in team communication and coordination than deficiencies in technical proficiency.”
Just like Dekker warns us that “human error” is usually more indicative of an error of process, NASA’s research reveals that breakdowns in communication are often mistaken as mere pilot error rather than a problem in team, communication, and/or process.
The Sexton-Helmreich paper goes on to explain, “Crew performance was more closely associated with the quality of crew communication than with the technical proficiency of individual pilots. . . . No differences were found between the severity of the errors made by effective and ineffective crews; rather, it was the ability of the effective crews to communicate that kept their errors from snowballing into undesirable outcomes.”
All teams make mistakes, whether in the backcountry or outer space, but it’s the high-functioning team that catches the mistake, error corrects, and stays safer. Remember, though, error correction requires the humility to admit an error in the first place.
Their paper goes on to harvest insight from bunches more research, including decades-long NASA findings, but they stress that successful crews tended to communicate more and earlier than lower-performing crews. That is, teammates discussed the mission, what was expected, how they’d go about it, and identified problems before and during their work.
In researching the topic of teamwork, these themes of effective communication resurfaced time and time again. I highlight here the Sexton- Helmreich paper because it so expertly explains that a strong team trumps individual talents, and concludes, “Such findings are not unique to aviation, as similar results have emerged in other safety-critical systems.”
Turn taking and psychological safety
In decision making and debriefing, collaborative and respectful communication helps facilitate our process. Obviously these characteristics should infuse our teamwork too. Easier said than done, especially when we’re sometimes operating in a stressful environment.
In 2012 tech giant Google, in its “Project Aristotle,” investigated why some of its teams outperform others. Studying 180 teams across its empire, at first researchers were stumped as to why some of them excelled while others faltered. High-performing teams seemingly behaved differently; what derailed some teams became a strength in others, and so on.
After months of confounding observations, the Google researchers at last identified two shared characteristics among all of their successful teams. First, teammates generally spoke equally among themselves. The teams had “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” In short, everybody spoke about the same amount over the course of a project. Team members didn’t necessarily speak equally on every task, but over a given project, “As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,” reported the New York Times.
Second, the better teams all shared a culture of “psychological safety,” defined by Harvard professor Dr. Amy Edmonson as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.”
Edmonson began her career researching hospital units. She assumed that “better” teams would make fewer mistakes, but what she found shattered her view. Higher-performing teams were making more mistakes. She dug deeper. In fact, the better teams were openly acknowledging their mistakes and addressing them in a collaborative, productive way. Mistakes weren’t hidden or deemphasized; they were highlighted and dissected, with an eye toward learning and prevention.
So the openness was there, and it led to better outcomes, and based on her work, it had to do with a sense of safety among teammates. She cautions, though, not to interpret this as a fuzzy, touchy-feely sentiment. Interviewed on Harvard Business Review’s “Ideacast” podcast, she explains: “What it’s about is candor; what it’s about is being direct, taking risks, being willing to say, ‘I screwed that up.’ Being willing to ask for help when you’re in over your head.”
This naturally circles back to our debrief, near misses, and respectful team communication. To get there, we need to continuously create and foster a sense of this psychological safety among teammates. It is not something we do in the fall and then let it grow stale throughout winter. It requires ongoing attention, in guide meetings and trip plans with buddies.
Edmonson stresses the importance: “And so I always want to explain, there is an observed and quite robust correlation between psychological safety and learning and performance.”
A high-performing team commits to excellence, improvement, and learning from its inevitable mistakes— and all this comes more easily in a supportive, safe team environment. And ask yourself, What are the consequences of riding with a low-performing team?
Rob Coppolillo is a mountain guide and writer, based on Vashon Island, in Puget Sound. He’s the author of The Ski Guide Manual.
All of this information is why in this time of over analyzing that not everyone is on some team out there to conquer nature. It is not rocket science.
It is so simple to evaluate conditions and speak ones mind. All of these infomation essays have at their core “to be sure and subscribe or buy or pay the price to join in the sharing of my expertise. I give you this advise from an old hand. Use your brain, go solo or with a partner, but stay away from the herd mentality of going into the bc with groups. Safety in numbers, if your concern for safety is so extreme that you need to be out in a group, hey why not go snow shoeing.
I guess I’d respectfully disagree that “it’s so simple” to evaluate conditions and speak one’s mind. Group size, too, is a tricky thing….the AIARE notebook recommends 3-5 as a group size….and you wouldn’t believe how much debate and research went into that little rec!
Team dynamics have become my number 1 priority in the last decade, glad to see emphasis on this. As another resource, I found a lot of value in this S1E8 episode from ‘Slide: the avalanche podcast’:
Lots of other really good episodes in this series, highly recommended. Good fitness skinning listening!
Hey A—I devoured those episodes! Does he have a new season out yet? I’ll revisit that one. For sure, Doug’s podcast has great nuggets in there….
I love the emphasis on the importance of acknowledging and learning from mistakes. I would also flag that gender dynamics on a backcountry team are a really important thing to take into account, as women often have to overcome a challenge being heard or listened to. I know this may be an unpopular opinion among men who may believe themselves to be great listeners and treat all partners as equal, but it is a pretty universal experience for women. There’s another gender dynamic within groups that can prove challenging: women feeling the need to prove themselves, perform, or not appear “afraid.” This can also make it harder to speak up. As a woman who is very outspoken and also has great partners who are very respectful, I still find myself in that mindset. It’s a societal issue that I hope will change, but men who ski with women should work to be acutely aware of.
Great points, Emily. As a woman, I’ve found myself in both frames of mind, both not being heard and putting on a ‘prove myself’ tough girl face. It’s something I want to work on this season, but agree male ski partners also need to be aware of the gender dynamics and how we can all cultivate more open, respectful communication.
Indeed, that is a real, persistent phenomenon—climbing, skiing, and beyond. My buddy, Sheldon Kerr, writes a long sidebar in the Teamwork chapter on the very topic you identify as a challenge.
One cool thing some teams do is identify if someone isn’t speaking up, they insist (politely!) to hear that person’s opinion. That often elicits info from a shy, less-experienced, less confident teammate. Too often, you see the dudes in the front of the skintrack with a female friend or girlfriend (or two) at the back, not involved in the discussion, too. Red flag!
That said, I’ve also toured and climbed with some killer women, which makes it easy to get their opinion — they’re stronger/smarter/more experienced than me, so I’m all ears!
OK, hope to see you there sometime!
Hey Emily I love your point! I actually wrote about women speaking up and the benefit of others listening to them in another article about backcountry skiing that was just released. The link is in the portfolio section of my website, or just email me. Love connecting with other women who are speaking up and understand the challenges that arise in the backcountry for us!
I’m not an Astronaut, but I did spend many years flying two-seat high performance fighter aircraft. Rob is onto something here; I’ve felt ever since I started backcountry skiing that the “debrief culture” that I experienced in Air Force fighter squadrons is exactly what’s needed to be safe in the backcountry. It starts with a solid mission plan, and you brief each phase of the mission in sufficient detail that everyone is comfortable with the plan (no one is just “along for the ride”, the objectives and expectations for each phase of the mission are clear, and when the mission is complete, you sit down and debrief each phase of flight…what went according to plan, and what didn’t. If it got screwed up, what was the root cause? Was it a bad plan? Was it a good plan, poorly executed? Did unforeseen circumstances (bad weather, equipment malfunctions) put you in a position you hadn’t planned for? And most importantly, what are the lessons learned that you apply the next time you go out?
And the discussion of “candor” is a really important point. The guys and gals I flew with were raised in a culture of BRUTAL honesty. You knew if you made a mistake, it was going to be noticed and debriefed in painstaking detail, so you got very good at fessing up to your own mistakes to spare someone else the task of telling you that you’d screwed up.
If you dodge a bullet in the backcountry, it’s easy to just breathe a sigh of relief , crack open a beer, and celebrate your success. But the much more productive (and safer approach, for the long run) is to take the time to debrief. Did you press the limits? Was someone uncomfortable, but afraid to speak up at the time? Why did communication break down? If you had it to do over again, what would be differently? All of that is part of the debrief culture.
That culture kept me alive through many years of raging around, low to the ground at 600 mph in the dark of night. It can pay big dividends for weekend warriors in the mountains, too.
(And just for the record, all those years of debriefing in the Air Force, it was usually done over a beer. So doing a good debrief doesn’t have to delay your post-mission brew!)
Rob S—I would love to chat at length with you on this very topic. There’s an entire chapter in the book on debriefing, and I stole most of it from you aviators/military folks!
I admit, I grew up with a “I never make mistakes” attitude…and I recall a great friend saying to me once, “Dude, take the pressure off, we all make mistakes.” Indeed, in the long run it’s just easier and more productive to say “I blew that one” and get down to fixing the problem. Sounds easy, harder to practice!
Thanks for the good thoughts—what jets were you flying? Sounds out there! Backcountry skiing must feel like it’s happening at a snail’s pace for you!
Rob – I flew F-15Es….including a tour in Alaska where I got to fly over Denali all the time. My wife’s theory is that I had to up my skiing game to make up for the lost thrills of flying, and there might be something to that. Would be happy to chat anytime. The biggest key to the “debrief culture” is having a thick skin, and that takes some time to develop. But in the BC, we do get to choose our partners, and it’s probably a good idea to avoid anyone with a thin skin who can’t accept a critique.
Great thoughts—seems like aviation/military people have the debrief thing wired…especially you guys flying crazy ass machines like an F-15! …..it’s indeed difficult to put together a team that can debrief really well….in addition to accepting a critique, seems key to be able to self-critique, too—self-loathing and criticism, ouch!
Love to try and connect in November—I’m nuts on the run-up to the book launch and trying to get some turns in before the tram closes in November!
Hope you are skiing, Rob!
This is fantastic insight. The team I’m on at work practices this daily. We strive to ensure everyone has a voice and participates in both planning and execution. We train that failure is inevitable but that if we work together we’ll find it and fix it fast. There’s often a lot of baggage people bring in when they join our team. Their past work experiences and insecurities often keep them from participating wholly. However, after a few months of immersion into the process, new teammates begin to trust the process and the system and we usually see their productivity and job satisfaction take off in short order. It’s interesting to see the parallels here. I’ll be thinking hard about how I can take this culture and bring it to my ski touring.
Travis, sounds like you are on the righteous path—right on! That culture is so important, easily poisoned by the wrong teammates…it requires nurturing and it sounds like you and your crew are doing a great job of it—keep it up and I hope you have a great season this year. What sort of work do you do? Have you discussed this stuff with your current partners? Curious how they received it and what strategies you used to foster a positive team culture with your crew….
I love this article. This is what I feel is needed in avalanche education training. Many of us have not learned these skills or practice them on regular basis. I feel like it is so glossed over in the avalanche education when I feel this is one the keys to recreating safely in the backcountry.
Great, Amy, let us know how your season goes and how your teambuilding does!
I am an engineer by education, and a skier by passion… Years ago I took part in a game training showing how the attitude and character of participants influence the work of the team in a crisis situation. In short: in a situation perceived as a crisis, a person with leadership qualities can easily interrupt communication with the team. This impairs cooperation with those with less confidence.
It is important that “natural leaders” are aware of this.
And as for the briefing before the action, I was lucky to take part in the exchange between our Polish Highland Club and the German Deutche Alpein Verein last winter. In the training of young leaders, the emphasis on evening debriefing before going to the mountains was crucial. With topography, weather forecast, avalanche forecast, day plan. And questions. And communication in teams.
Unfortunately, the popularity of skimountaineering (of all kinds) in social media in the “ski-porn” style does not go hand in hand with conveying important knowledge. This is still a domain of old-school clubs 😉
Helpful insights Dominick. In the chapter this article was excerpted from, Rob goes on to talk about leadership and has some really interesting commentary on how backcountry leaders are often designated by default because of their physical strength and speed. I think there’s a lot more to unpack about group dynamics. Ski porn social media definitely doesn’t help to facilitate that.
Good thoughts, Dominik….fun to be able to see different teams internationally….
I am a healthcare safety consultant and focus on “High Reliability Organizing.” Much of the research and tactics developed in High Reliability Organizations, such as NASA, the US Navy, nuclear power and firefighting directly apply to ski touring. I would recommend any reading by Weick and Sutcliffe, Amalberti, Westrum & Hudson, Rickover or Dekker (as mentioned above). Serious nerd points if you do!
The most important thing we can work on is developing a culture of safety with a safety first mindset. All of the rest, like rad ski days, will fall into place! Any ski day where we get to ski and go home injury free (or alive) is a rad ski day!
High reliability organizations….I recall reading that term in several sources. I used “high-performing” teams in this chunk of the book. I’d be really curious to see your materials and hear your insights on organizing teams/companies….sounds cool. I’ll search those other authors—are they academics or within the healthcare industry? Great, thanks man!
Right on Ben. The topic is very relevant.
Thanks for all you do
Like Rob S, I also come from an aviation background, but flying civilian jet transport aircraft. Early in my career we flew 3 man aircraft (L-1011, B-727 in my case) with a pretty hierarchical status in the cockpit. Captain, First Officer and Second Officer.
Later, transitioning to 2 man aircraft; Airbus and B-767, there was more of an emphasis on crew coordination, and less of this hierarchy; ie listen to your First Officer, or Cabin crew. Many major incidents might have been prevented by better crew communications, think Tenerife.
So it is more important, to establish this tone of listening to other crew members, and following SOP or standard operating procedures. And if you have a sense that things are going “off the rails” slow everything down. Extend the downwind, or ask for more time on an approach. . A Captains, (my) briefing on first cycle flying together, might include “if you see that something in the operation doesn’t look right, by all means speak up, and bring it to my attention.” If an approach is destabilized, or not working out, we can always do a Go-Around “.. And always have a plan, stay ahead of the aircraft, as they say, constantly evaluating weather at destination, what are your alternates doing? Get input from your crew. Are there delays, holding at your destination?
I know I helped a Captain once, by pointing out he was lined up to land on the wrong runway… So speak up !.
Just some ideas, that can also be applied to backcountry skiing..
Great post, VT—I have read that Air France (Rio-Paris) disaster several times (I think it’s a Vanity Fair feature…). They talk about cockpit hierarchies and the “old” design of the Airbus cockpit. Really interesting. Hierarchies are useful in some ways, dangerous a lot of the time, eh? Certainly skiing we need to keep an eye on it. Guiding, there’s a hierarchy right off the bat—people roll into town, pay money to the guide, and (rightly!) expect her to “know what’s going on”. But it builds in a dynamic of not speaking up! And touring with friends—often the “best” skier becomes the group leader, or the “local”. To me, that’s dangerous—often it’s the out-of-towner who has the thought “why are we going this way?” that can shake us out of our usual plans, whether that’s a terrain choice on the up or down, where we regroup, where we might dig….
That’s great, pointing out to the Captain “uh, hey, you’re lined up on the wrong runway”….how many avy accidents do we read about in which somebody says in hindsight, “Well, I had a bad feeling, but I didn’t speak up”?
Great thoughts, VT, thanks for the insight!
Great article. I like that it doesn’t constrain itself to only Avalanche risk since there are other dangers to prepare and discuss too (dare I add-like over focusing on covid at the expense of other risks (not denying covid).
I think the topic lends itself to good teamwork in other areas of life too and have felt that healthcare occasionally lags behind in awareness and capacity to practice having these discussions before and after events. I brought my experience in organised mountain rescue to work in cancer care in giving a presentation on applying the tips and tricks learned in the backcountry at work.
Ian Mccammons ground breaking paper on heuristic traps is worth a read and for more geek points ‘safety at the sharp end’by Rhona Flin is great.
Thanks for a timely reminder to have good communication with a team of your deliberate choosing-before during and after the skis are on.
Safety at the Sharp End by Rhona Flin is a great pull! Healthcare absolutely lags behind in awareness and capacity to practice safety practices learned from other industries, such as a brief and de-brief. I have a copy of Safety at the Sharp End somewhere here!
Gotta check out the Flin piece…thanks fir the reco! RC
This may be an implicit argument for skiing solo in the bc.
Ha, maybe so! If it ain’t your thing, then maybe it ain’t your thing.
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