It’s a cliche, but it’s true: there’s nothing like suffering through a rough experience together to help team members connect and “bond” with each other. Assuming the organization survives it, a bad experience can turn out to be a very useful thing for the team.
Last weekend, my mountain rescue team was caught out overnight during the evacuation of an injured hunter. We had descended a very steep, slippery, rocky 1000-foot slope to reach our patient, and once we got there we decided it was neither safe nor practical to go back the way we’d come. After hours of looking at maps and trying to figure out an alternate route, we decided that spending the night where we were and being flown out by helicopter the next morning was the best option we had.
The problem was, it was very cold and most of us were not well prepared to spend the night. We’ve had plenty of all-night evacuations before, but when you’re moving it’s easy to keep warm. When you’re staying in one spot, it’s harder. We built a fire, but speaking for myself I was still pretty miserable all night. Here are some of the lessons I thought about during the night:
1. Humor is key. We took turns telling stories and jokes, since no one could really sleep, and it helped us get through the night. You can’t let humor be your primary response during an organizational crisis, but you’ve got to maintain a sense of humor and let it help you keep your perspective.
2. A sense of urgency is also important. If we thought we would be sitting around that fire for the next two weeks, the whole experience would have been different. We kept our sense of perspective about how important it was to get out by morning. We didn’t just sit back and wait in the beginning; we sent out scouts, studied maps, collected wood for the fire and made our plan. We kept busy for as long as we could. When dealing with crisis at work, think in the short-term, get busy and put your strategy for recovery together. Don’t sit back and assume that things will be bad for a long time. It demotivates people.
3. Don’t let individuals get “bad attitudes”. One of my teammates remarked, a couple days later, “The coolest thing was the everyone recognized the importance of keeping us on an even keel, so even the usual troublemakers watched what they said and did.” Complaining only happened in a joking manner. No one pointed fingers at each other for our situation. No one got territorial. Everyone pitched in. Sometimes a crisis brings group norms into sharp focus and makes them clearer than they normally are.
4. Use the situation to get to know each other better. The way people behave under stress is very telling; learn from it.
5. Look out for individual needs. Throughout the night, we constantly asked each other “Are you OK? I have extra clothes in my pack. Does anyone need water?”
6. The best bonding happens later; let it happen. While we were still sitting around that fire someone said, “You know how everyone is cold and miserable right now? Tomorrow we’ll be telling stories about this as if it was actually fun.” And it was true. It’s now Thursday, and we’re still telling stories; in meetings, on the phone, over a beer at happy hour. We can’t stop talking about our experience, and it brings us closer. There is a sense that we had fun that night, even though we really didn’t.
Use the tough times in your organizational history as war stories to bond over. Don’t ever forget the lessons they taught you, and use the power of storytelling to keep the experience alive for your team. It can be a great way to reconnect with the team’s mission, vision and values.