Expedition Behavior – March 2020

Canada has a rich history of celebrating rugged individuals who explored our vast country while enduring many hardships. This past month some of us may have enjoyed some roses and chocolates on Valentine’s day with our beaus whilst others may have enjoyed remembering the birthday of one, Ebenezer William Peyto. Peyto was the Warden of Banff National Park for the better part of 30 years. He honorably served Canada in both the Boer War and World War I. When Canada became involved in World War II, Peyto saddled up to a recruitment office to offer his services to our military yet one more time, where he was turned down as he was 70. Legends of how he sought to remain tough by sleeping outside in -30C temperatures abound. As do stories about his habits of entering bars with a lynx on his back which he set loose to clear the place out in order to enjoy a drink alone. History has honored his contributions to Canada by naming a lake after him in Banff National Park as well as a Saloon, Wild Bills on the main drag in Banff. Other companies have taken his namesake to try to appropriate his adventurous characteristics into their corporate culture.

We also are bombarded with the stories of the solo super hero and renegade entrepreneurs. Superman flies alone and Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk are solo faces of the corporate empires they respectively built. Iconoclastic individuals make up the messages we receive about who has achieved the peak in their respective fields. We celebrate them as champions of competence. We view the individual as a symbol of strength. We see dependence on others in a group setting as less admirable.

We just don’t seem to be presented with stories detailing the teamwork and collaborative effort that goes into these achievements. If we do some digging, we’ll see that most successes aren’t done in a vacuum by a single person. Most progress is the result of concerted effort amongst several individuals. The result being much greater than the sum of the individual contributing parts.

Nonetheless, there’s a frame of mind that comes from Mountaineering that forms the basis of what truly constitutes success. Expedition Behavior is the term used to describe the goal of the desired mindset for those participating on an exploratory mission. The individuals are taught and encouraged to consider the interests of the group or the mission above those of their own. Self interest is secondary to the mission. Concern for others over concern for self. When you are part of a group that is tied together while crossing ladders strung across rugged terrain covered in massive avalanche debris, the way to protect yourself is to protect the group. You will either all make it across the treacherous landscape or none of you will. This clarity of outcome helps focus the individual participant’s minds on to the mission and outside of the demons swimming around their own minds.

It can mean taking a turn at the front of the line on a trek so that you are the one exerting the effort to break trail in the snow. It can mean getting up a few minutes earlier to start the fire for the group. It means working to be the person others want to have on their team. It means doing your part and a little bit more. In these hostile environments, pursuing our personal interest can be counter to the interests of the group. If I am so focused on reaching a summit that I boldly march forward, I could trigger an avalanche which compromises the safety of my fellow travellers. The risk inherent in nature’s playground imposes a standard of behavior which puts the group’s interests as the priority over those of individuals.

Neil Armstrong is remembered as being the first man on the moon. The others that trained for the mission, those occupying the lunar module with which they landed, and the countless others that were back at mission control in Houston are all relegated to the rear view. Canadian Space legend, Chris Hadfield writes, “Our expertise is the result of the training provided by thousands of experts around the world, and the support provided by thousands of technicians in five different space agencies.”

In the US, Expedition Behavior is a term that was coined by the group, National Outdoor Leadership School, which is responsible for providing wilderness education to many groups. They have also trained crews of NASA astronauts. Listening to Canadian Astronaut, Chris Hadfield, speak a few years ago, he said “Expedition behavior involves putting the group’s goals and mission first, and showing the same amount of concern for others as you do for yourself.” Hadfield has represented Canada numerous times in Space. He has been the shuttle commander several times and has flown hundreds of orbits around Earth as well as spending extended periods at the International Space Station. Hadfield observes, “expedition behavior—being selfless, generous, and putting the team ahead of yourself—is what helps us succeed in space more than anything else.” If it’s important enough for Astronauts to rely upon, it’s probably worth giving some thought to how we can adopt this mindset in our work lives. Hadfield writes in his book, “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth”, “A lot of our training is like this: we learn how to do things that contribute in a very small way to a much larger mission but do absolutely nothing for our own career prospects.”

One of the corollary benefits of a Expedition Behavior mindset is that it implies a view of one’s circumstances that is not a zero sum game. By considering and looking after another’s interest, we aren’t giving up something ourselves. By looking out to protect and help others, we’re able to still help ourselves. With everyone looking around and seeing how to help each other, the group is capable of much more than each individual selfishly pursuing their own immediate, short term interest.

We see the myth of the value of the superstar evaporate in professional sports all the time. National teams which have been created in some sports for Olympics which were built from the best professional athletes seemed to offer a given nation overwhelming levels of talent. Think of the US Men’s Olympic Basketball or Canadian Men’s Hockey Teams over the years. These dream teams were anything but a well oiled machine. Not all of these teams performed nearly to the lofty expectations people had of them. The individuals weren’t able to perform as a group. It didn’t matter how incredible talented they were individually. Their competence was compromised by their inability to collaborate. Getting along as part of a group is one of those soft skills that are hard to evaluate from a resume. We don’t take classes in University on how to play well together.

It turns out that adopting a posture of Expedition Behavior helps not just Astronauts and extreme outdoor enthusiasts, but applies in a number of business contexts in which we may find ourselves. Groups in sales, medicine, finance, and other fields have been shown to demonstrate better performance where individual members demonstrate strong Expedition Behavior. Improved collaboration leads to improved outcomes.

Moreover, individual group members can be held in greater esteem by their peers when exhibiting Expedition Behavior. Hadfield writes, “Over the years I’ve learned that investing in other people’s success doesn’t just make them more likely to enjoy working with me. It also improves my own chances of survival and success.” For example, those that are highly talented and outperform others on the team may be looked at with some jealousy or trepidation by their co-workers. However, if they are able to demonstrate Expedition Behavior and work for the benefit of the group by doing things like ensuring others get credit or are supported with their own contributions, then these uber-talented folk are perceived more favorably. Where adopting a perspective of “there’s room for everybody, and you’ll shine if other people are shining”, then one’s personal status expands. The group wants to reward individual sacrifice. Psychologists call what we earn individually by our contributions as idiosyncrasy credits which are “positive impressions that accumulate in the minds of group members.” Others will consider you less of a threat and competition and more trustworthy. By earning idiosyncrasy credits, one gains the respect of their peers. They are willing to engage further with you. Where more in a group take this perspective, the group outperforms its individual’s abilities. Expedition Behavior results in an expansion of capabilities and not a restriction.

Most of us aren’t flying through space together or making life threatening decisions as to what route to use to ascent our targeted mountain peak, so what can Expedition Behavior look like for us in the work place? Perhaps, it includes as a starting point the acknowledgement that our efforts are put forth to serve the interests of the mission and group over our personal priorities or advancement. Individually, we’re responsible for doing our share, staying organized, and demonstrating accountability.

No matter what kind of superstar you may be, at some point you’ll be in a group with other people with equal or better skills than you. Often you may be the least experienced person in the room or group on a certain topic. This is not the time to show off. Hadfield advises approaching with a humble perspective, “You don’t yet know what you don’t know—and regardless of your abilities, your experience, and your level of authority, there will definitely be something you don’t know.”

If you’re new to a group, consider more advice from Hadfield, “The best way to contribute to a brand-new environment is not by trying to prove what a wonderful addition you are. It’s by trying to have a neutral impact, to observe and learn from those who are already there, and to pitch in with grunt work wherever possible.” It’s not about you. You’re not trying to jump to the front of the pack. You’re trying to put the group first.

We should also seek to be honest and willing to acknowledge where mistakes have been made. Being open to receiving feedback is a key attribute of those exhibiting Expedition Behavior. Hadfield writes, ‘In any field, it’s a plus if you view criticism as potentially helpful advice rather than as a personal attack.” Hadfield later on in the book notes, “At NASA, we’re not just expected to respond positively to criticism, but to go one step further and draw attention to our own missteps and miscalculations. It’s not easy for hyper-competitive people to talk openly about screw-ups that make them look foolish or incompetent. Management has to create a climate where owning up to mistakes is permissible and colleagues have to agree, collectively, to cut each other some slack. Yes, being open to feedback is nice, but the group and leadership can do its part to make receiving feedback a less intimidating experience.

He also acknowledges that “If you’re only thinking about yourself, you can’t see the whole picture.” Getting outside of our own heads and seeing ourselves as part of a bigger whole is helpful to both receiving feedback as well as reducing our efforts to showcase ourselves. Perhaps, we can seek to include a component in our performance reviews where a rating from our peers is included? An exercise that has been used with success with sport and business teams can be tried in our work environment. Gather the members of your team and provide each with a piece of paper. Instruct each team member to write their name at the top of the piece of paper provided. They are then to detail two sentences highlighting how they see their role on the team. Once completed, everyone hands their piece of paper to the right. Each person now writes two sentences about the person whose name is on the paper they are now holding. The two sentences should seek to offer constructive guidance as to what this person can do to improve the performance of the group as a whole. How do you see this person’s role on the team? This process is repeated until each person has the sheet with their name at the top back in their hands. Once this is done each member of the group will have their sheet which details a comprehensive 360 perspective including specifics dos and don’ts which will allow them and their team to perform better. Individually, each is able to better assess what their place on the team is. Each team member is able to cross reference their own perception of their role on the team with the assessments of fellow team members. Are they aligned? Do they see their role similarly as their team? No expensive external business consultants needed. Just some paper, time, and a place to do this with your current group.

Our goal should be to communicate clearly and manage expectations. If you can do something great. If you accept responsibility to take on a task, deliver as you say you will. From these individual behaviors we can expand our contribution to the group by showing respect to others and seeking to help others (without doing their work for them). We want to make contributions to the group without worrying about who gets credit. As US Civil Rights Activist, Dorothy Height, wisely observed, “Progress comes from caring more about what needs to be done than about who gets the credit.”