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Lessons in teamwork from the Chilean miners

User Avatar Blogger . 03/11/2010 12:30:11
Chilean miners celebration
By Cora Lynn Heimer Rathbone, Director of the Centre for Executive Development, Aston Business School

What sensations I experienced as the first of the Chilean miners emerged from the rescue capsule on October 13th 2010!

Engineering at its very best had accelerated an unprecedented rescue. From an initial projection of four months, the miners were retrieved in less than 52 days. Amazing!

And yet more astounding than that was the feat of human hope demonstrated by those 33 men. Having endured 69 days underground, they, relatively uneducated folk, emerged to immediately reconnect with loved ones - as well as their billionaire president. Talk about juxtapositions! Humanity united them, what else mattered?!

How would I have handled it, controlled my emotions in meeting family, then, within seconds, the national leader?

I flashed back to their ordeal. In particular those first 17 days must have been nearly unbearable. Trapped, incommunicado with the outside world, fearful of being forgotten by those above-ground who knew of their marginal activity, unable to do anything to start their own rescue, those men could have been excused for emulating “Animal Farm” – for descending into anarchy. However, quite to the contrary, by the time they were discovered through the tiny borehole, they had established an orderly co-existence, an organisation within which they could live together, at least until rescued.

Rich psychological studies will follow, but eight lessons can clearly be drawn straight away.

These men had:

1. Shared purpose: to survive, to be rescued, to retain hope despite being trapped in almost total darkness, unrelenting heat and with limited provisions.

2. Clear objectives: to maintain dignity through designated areas for washing and sleeping, to share resources like tooth brushes and food which was allocated carefully to ensure that what they had lasted for as long as possible.

3. Clear roles: from when they were discovered, the leader was obvious. As the rescue mission kicked in, new roles were added. A team communicator emerged to gather messages from individuals within the group, and a “medic” to ensure the hygiene and health of all.

4. Strong communication: even before the borehole, amongst the 33, communication had to be open and transparent. There literally wasn’t sufficient space to uphold a “work persona” that was different to “the real me”. Verbal communication must have been negligible compared to the non-verbal messages that all could see.

5. Strong sense of belonging: there was no competition between the “team” that the 33 became and the other “teams” to which they individually belonged – their nations (the one Bolivian could have been ostracized), their families, their religious allegiances, their employer. Survival tied them together.

6. Shared meaning: fascinating how the most vociferous of the group, amongst the first three to emerge, chose to speak to the cameras and say “soy minero” – I am a miner - “y quiero regresar a serlo de nuevo” – and I want to go back and be that again. These men knew their “metier”, and were proud of what they did.

7. Strong sense of acceptance: I can’t imagine how those individuals felt below, as their idiosyncrasies and most personal habits were exposed – day after miserable day. Notwithstanding, each stepped out of that capsule as unique personalities, unbroken, ordinary yet straight-shouldered, anything but diminished. And these are miners, honest fellows, not, dare I say, politicians or movie stars, not accustomed to the limelight.

8. Time to reflect: on who they each were, to be unique, such that the youngest declared he would “never again” descend to the “pit” whilst his exuberant companion had declared the opposite.

This story of hope is in fact a remarkable example of team-work rarely seen in even the highest of high performing teams.
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