When my pager went off this Sunday and I heard the call for an injured hiker on Quandary Peak, the natural reaction would have been to groan, curse, and decide not to respond.  After all, it was the third time in one weekend that my mountain rescue team had been called to Quandary Peak,  a 14,000 foot mountain that attracts a lot of hikers and climbers in the summer months.  Rescue missions on Quandary generally involve a 45-minute drive and many hours on the mountain, sometimes even an overnight.  And to have three of them in one 48-hour period is a huge workload for the team.

But I didn’t groan and curse.  Instead I had the same reaction I usually do when my pager summons the team to help someone lost or hurt in the backcountry: my heartbeat quickened a little, I felt a sense of excitement, and I began to run around my house filling water bottles, checking the charge on my radio, and throwing gear into my car. 

Later when I had time to reflect, I thought about what sorts of things make the difference between a team that responds to the challenge of a work overload or a stressful deadline with enthusiastic engagement, or a team that responds by groaning, cursing, complaining and doing less than what is required to get the job done well.  Here are some of the factors that came to mind:

  • Having the necessary tools, equipment and training.  Nothing frustrates and disengages a team quicker than a lack of resources.  Not only does it present logistical challenges, but it also causes team members to feel that management is piling unrealistic expectations on them and doesn’t really care.
  • A strong and shared sense of purpose, and a feeling of excitement or enthusiasm about that purpose.  That’s easy on a rescue team; we know that we’re being called out to save someone’s life, and that’s unquestioningly and unwaveringly important to each and every one of us.  It’s not so easy to create that same sense of purpose on a corporate team.  You really can’t spend too much time making sure you have this.  Without it, team members will never go the extra mile for your organization.
  • Having members with the right skill sets and knowing who is to do what.  This is partly a matter of good leadership, because it starts when the team is formed and continues with solid team communication and training.  But it’s also a matter of team engagement.  On our rescue team we have people with medical backgrounds, technical rock climbing backgrounds, incident command skills, and physically strong people who can get in the field quickly and carry a lot of weight.  We need all of them to get the job done.  If some of them groan and curse and stay home, literally or figuratively, we’re handicapped.

So how did our three rescues turn out?  Pretty well; all of our subjects survived, and that’s not always the case.  One hiker with a broken knee, one battered and hypothermic woman who spent the night out, and one lost hiker found uninjured.  That’s not bad for a whole weekend on a treacherous peak.

There are undoubtedly many more factors that account for team engagement.  Next time your team is faced with a last minute deadline or an overwhelming challenge, watch them.  What factors determine how they respond?

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