The Antarctic winter is harsh – temperatures hover around minus 35 degrees Celsius, constant blizzards, months of darkness, and you can’t get in or out of the place. Work becomes tedious and often relationships become strained, made worse by the knowledge that nothing will change until the re-supply ship arrives, a distant nine months away.
It sounds extreme. But the reality is the harsh environment was the easy part. Living with 18 strangers, with little privacy and no escape was much harder.
In Antarctica I used five tools to build a strong, resilient team that treated each other with respect. Since returning from Antarctica I have become a mother of one and step-mother of four and I have used these same insights with great results!
1. No triangles
The practise of only having direct conversations built respect within my team. We had a simple rule that went ‘I don’t speak to you about him, or you don’t speak to me about her.’ No Triangles; go direct to the source. If you have something you’d like to say to someone then tell them – don’t take it to a third party.
It also shuts down “answer shopping” - people who keep asking the same question and go over people’s heads, or around people, until they get the answer they want.
Children will try this often, so the adults need to stand united.
2. Manage your 'Bacon Wars'
A major dispute once threatened to shut down the station: Should the bacon be soft or crispy?
Every home or workplace has its Bacon Wars. They are seemingly small, irrelevant issues that grate on people but build up until they become distractions and affect morale. It may be dirty coffee cups; wet towels on the floor; people playing on phones while someone is speaking … they appear to be small offences but in reality they are usually a symptom of a deeper issue.
You must identify and probe your Bacon Wars. Find out what’s underneath and resolve it.
For us, it turned out the Bacon War was a manifestation of something deep and important: respect between two teams.
3. Find a reason to celebrate
Recognise milestones and important moments. If you don’t have one readily apparent then create one. Find a reason.
In Antarctica we celebrated big events but also the smaller successes such as a month without a power blackout, significant scientific data collection or uninterrupted internet access with a fully functioning server.
Usually it was just a notice on the whiteboard in the dining hall but it was important to find the time to stop and celebrate. Because these moments create momentum. They give a sense of progress, moving forward and getting closer to our outcomes.
During long projects, such as exam periods, it’s critical to find a reason to stop and salute even small accomplishments. Whether it’s with an event, a reward or a simple thank you, the acknowledgement and recognition will reaffirm their purpose and demonstrate progress.
4. Check-in on people
Take a moment to check-in on people and ask, “Are you OK?” Not the project, not the tasks, but you – the person.
People respond with commitment and loyalty when they know both they and their contribution is valued. To show people they are valued, check how they are travelling. Make it spontaneous and often. These moments will create momentum. As Maya Angelou put it so succinctly “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
5. Respect trumps harmony
My expedition team was the most diverse team I’ve ever worked with. I didn’t recruit them, I was handed them. “Make it work!” I was told.
We were from vastly different backgrounds, a mix of professional skills including scientists, engineers, IT, trades, pilots and weather specialists. The only generalist role was mine: Station Leader. With such a mix of people it was impractical to think we’d all get along with each other all the time.
The interpersonal pressure was intense and privacy was scarce. It would be unreasonable to expect total harmony, so I didn’t. Instead, we aimed for respect. Simple courtesy and respect.
I have the same philosophy with my stepchildren and we have a fantastic relationship where we speak openly about any concerns or challenges, always calmly and always respectfully.
Instead of harmony teams should aim for respect because “respect trumps harmony”, every time.
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Rachael Robertson is author of ‘Leading on the Edge’ published by Wiley and available in bookstores across the country and through Rachael’s website www.rachaelrobertson.com