Saturday, October 16, 2010

Lessons on Teamwork from the Chilean MIners

Here are take-away messages from the crisis that captured the world’s attention, with workplace advice from Katie Bennett, principal of Black Diamond Coaching in Vancouver, and Randall Craig, president of Pinetree Associates in Toronto.


The team included a shift supervisor, but there were no corporate types to call the shots after the cave-in, so a lot of the things the miners did were decided informally among themselves without an appointed leader. They pitched in and divided up the work to keep everyone occupied and productive. They decided who was good at doing what, tapping into their own specific skills to organize exercise regimens and debris removal, and provide spiritual support.

The lesson: When you’re part of a team, make yourself aware of your colleagues’ strengths and skills. Don’t count on a manager to decide who is best-suited to a specific task. Leaders naturally emerge in a crisis or crunch; in a challenging situation, step up and demonstrate your leadership potential.


Keeping occupied, even if it was simply moving rocks or jogging around the mine tunnels, gave the men a sense of accomplishment, helping them to fend off boredom and gloomy thoughts about their situation. Despite facing extreme challenges, they managed to stay active and upbeat.

The lesson: Watching the clock gets you nowhere. If you find ways to make your work interesting and look at what you have accomplished to help meet the team’s larger goal, the time goes much faster. People need to feel productive. Pointing out to team members how their work can and will make a difference will give more meaning to their existence. People can become engrossed in any task, as long as they feel there is a purpose to what they are doing.


The miners realized from the start that rather than putting their own needs first, they had to work together, and depend on each other to survive; once contact was made with rescuers, they became part of the overall effort to bring them out alive. In a show of solidarity, the miners vied with each other to be the final one to leave the cavern. Those with medical conditions were given extra consideration and rescued early, while the shift boss – the manager – was the last to leave.

The lesson: The miners’ responses might seem counter-intuitive to many in the corporate world, who scramble their way up the ladder to seniority and merit perks. Giving people what they need and deserve should not be a question of their title or how long they’ve been around, but about their needs and how well they move the enterprise forward.


Continual stress is unhealthy. The miners made time for games, reading, writing letters and exercise. An Elvis fan led regular sing-alongs; others told stories and jokes (which they eventually recorded on a video camera lowered to their cave). And they looked ahead to the possibilities that their ordeal might lead to opportunity. They asked rescuers to send down a book on public speaking so they could talk eloquently to the media when they emerged, and made a pact that they would all share in telling their story for an inevitable film.

The lesson: Even though the dynamic of a crisis or an office year-end crunch may seem to dictate that “this is no laughing matter,” never underestimate the need to lighten the mood and find a way to take a load off. No matter how dire the situation now, keep in mind that eventually you’ll be able to look back and smile about getting through it.


While the miners may have had doubts and felt discouraged at times, they propped up each other’s spirits. If even one had panicked, the negative emotion could have eroded morale and led others to give up. Instead they looked for bits of good news and held to their ultimate goal: freedom.

The lesson: Every team, department or company must have a shared mission and focus on a vision of a better future. Negative emotions will always prevail in a crisis; keeping them at bay is critical for the success of the team. A good tool is to focus on progress, no matter how incremental, and communicate that while the tasks at hand may be daunting, “we will make it through this.” This is not about being a Pollyanna; this is about the reality that those who stay positive are in the best mind set to formulate solutions. You don’t have to be facing a dark tunnel to look for light. Even when things are going great, congratulating everyone for their contribution to the team’s success will generate additional enthusiasm.

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