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Extreme teams: crewing the enterprise

Teamwork makes the dreamwork, as they say. We can only go so far alone. In testing environments, as with life, we draw strength by working together to achieve greater things. Research into teamwork in extreme environments lays out the blueprint for structuring groups effectively in order to prevail against adversity and promote operational effectiveness. It has bearing on how we can formulate our own goals and strategies to live more productive and happy lives. No one has to be an island, a lesson we would do well to embrace post-Covid...





In my blogs I put forward ideas from Adventure Psychology to help people figure a way to thrive in uncertain times, and make sense of the crazy world. By adopting an Adventure Mindset (I'll gradually reveal how) you can approach the challenges of life with an adaptable resolve, and embrace the chaos knowing full well that it's a wild ride so you might as well enjoy it!

“Pulling together makes the whole greater than the parts. An all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality can give us super additive capacity to achieve great things, as well as a safety-net to cushion the blows of failure. We should never underestimate the bonds of being involved in group effort...As a fundamentally social species we could well do with drawing on our combined processing power to find solutions that benefit us all... "

A cohesive unit


I was drifting off to sleep, fatigued after helming the 2am shift. This had involved standing above the wheel feeling like a stagecoach driver just about keeping the horses galloping on course. The vessel was hard at heel, ploughing through the waves making strong progress. The night was clear, and I was accompanied throughout by two dolphins, discernible from the mesmerising fluorescent trails alongside the hull. It was exhilarating, but at the end of watch I was ready to collapse into bed, worn out.


A couple of problems on handover meant I didn’t climb into bed till nearer 3.


“DAVE!!! I NEED YOU UP HERE NOW!!!”


I sat bolt upright, still half dressed after the earlier shift. It was pitch black. Indeed, less than an hour had passed.


This didn’t bode well.


The skipper of a boat out at sea can inspire confidence, or terror, depending on his or her demeanour and leadership capability. As Skipper James is prone to informing new crew at the start of a voyage: there is little need to turn into a Rear Admiral as soon as one leaves the shore. As such he exudes calm but firm captaincy. But sometimes leadership requires a shift in style as befits the situation.


I stumbled up top zipping my over-layers closed, in anticipation that once on deck I would be likely required hands-on, with little opportunity to go back below and add layers.


The scene was somewhat different to the clear night I had only recently bade farewell to. A thick fog surrounded us, and an ominous ambience.


I was informed that a vessel was bearing down on us, and whilst tracking its progress the fog had suddenly descended all around. Now we couldn’t see where the ship was, visibility was exceedingly poor. Attempts to radio had failed.


As the rest of the crew appeared bleary eyed the mood took on an urgent and tense air. Skipper James switched leadership style, shouting instruction directively, no-nonsense. He later would adopt a conciliatory air, even feeling a little apologetic as “I don’t like to have to shout”. But situational needs must. Everyone has their worst fear. And on confronting it is bound to become a little testy. His is “maritime collisions”! Fair enough...


As it happens after a fraught hour or so in the drizzle and gloom it was acknowledged that the fuzzy lights of the offending vessel had receded, given our evasive action in changing course - the danger had been declared passed. For now. We couldn’t relax for the rest of the night given that we were near a busy shipping lane in the Channel in November, and watches were no longer solo affairs, but we escaped without the Skipper’s worst fears being realised.


Whilst I have talked about performance and stress in recent posts, this has tended to focus on individual capacity and strategy in dealing with adversity. In many extreme situations, or adventure contexts, one is not necessarily alone, or independent in thought and deed. One acts as part of a group.


Certainly in the context of crewing a vessel in challenging conditions (the sea is a challenge irrespective of it’s apparent state), this is a team ‘sport’. Performance becomes a communal effort, and this entails certain factors that operate collectively to ensure successful progress and prevent disastrous consequences from occurring.


We don’t as a rule function in a vacuum. Our lives intertwine, and whilst we may feel we are tasked to shoulder the burden like Atlas and the world, we spread the load with others around us. Be that colleagues, family, friends. Having a support network is critical to being a resilient, competent, effective performer in life and work! There is skill in this of course, and it may not come naturally to all.


Research concentrating on team work in stressful conditions, including extreme environments notes areas whereby stress undermines the group’s capacity to succesfully operate, as well as processes that emerge and have bearing on this.


A key notion is cohesion, which is about synchronisation of efforts amongst team members towards common goal. Pulling together makes the whole greater than the parts. An all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality can give us super additive capacity to achieve great things, as well as a safety-net to cushion the blows of failure. We should never underestimate the bonds of being involved in group effort. I’ve seen ragtag bunches of widely varying personality types thrown together at sea. There is no choice but to get on with it. Sometimes that sort of situation is the best way to facilitate cohesion. Stress will inevitably occur, so we best all be pulling in the same direction.

I’ve witnessed the marvel of a disparate group of characters forming into a cohesive unit in rough seas – inner city youngsters cast out offshore for the first time and thrown in at the deep-end. Violent sea-sickness, lack of sleep, the fear of being at nature’s raw behest. It worked. The goal is simple – keep the vessel on course; trim the sails; sustain morale with food and peer support. Under stress the last thing you want to be is alone, as all bluster and bombast means nothing in turbulent swell, with stomach pitching contents over the side, whimpering for some calm.


We can unpack in more detail in coming pieces what it means to perform effectively in a team, the attributes that are desired, and relating this to how we can also address at the individual level skills that can help us manage our own resources better. Taking leadership over our own individual ‘ship’ as it were! There are even exciting new directions in neuroscience research looking at inter-brain synchrony: monitoring brain activity of teams of people involved in cooperative tasks. Hyper scanning techniques can reveal the degree to which brains connect together to optimise performance towards shared goals. As a fundamentally social species we could well do with drawing on our combined processing power to find solutions that benefit us all...


But for now, the take home message is about recognising that we need not be an island. We should draw on our peer networks for super additive betterment. Without that sense of cohesion things can start to fall apart, and life becomes very much an uphill struggle, sailing directly into the wind!



References:


Driskell, Tripp, Eduardo Salas, and James E Driskell. “Teams in Extreme Environments: Alterations in Team Development and Teamwork.” Human resource management review 28.4 (2018): 434–449.


Nam, Chang S et al. “Brain-to-Brain Neural Synchrony During Social Interactions: A Systematic Review on Hyperscanning Studies.” Applied sciences 10.19 (2020): 6669–

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