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October, 2010 Newsletter

Organizational Lessons from 2300 Feet Below


In the wake of the recent Chilean miners rescue, we learned how 33 miners coped and survived for 69 days in a trapped mine. First being faced with the probability of dying either through suffixation or starvation, and then organizing themselves to help with their own rescue provides us with many valuable life lessons.


The miners divided into three work groups, each working a shift of eight hours and each with a designated leader.  The men worked and slept in rotation so that some miners will be awake at all time, a crucial point of safety for the men.


This organizing not only helped the rescuers to accomplish their goal, but allowed the miners to return to the surface in fairly good shape both physically and psychologically.


Here is a refresher of some lessons we can apply to the world of work.


1. Leadership Counts: The appointment of a single leader was crucial to their functioning as individuals in isolation and as members of a work team. The leader was able to keep the miners focused on their number one task of surviving as an intact group. Putting in place management controls and discipline processes created a predictable structure for the miners to operate, even though their fate was not in their direct control.  Leaders and expected to really lead, inspire and control the activities of those in their organization, work group, or team.


2. Teams Provide Emotional Support: The leader’s attention to building and maintaining a strong sense of team was paramount. This camaraderie provided the social and emotional support needed to maintain one’s composure and psychological well-being.  All too often work teams are just focused on the job tasks. Teams can also serve to satisfy each member’s individual social psychological needs. Team leaders need to recognize this and leverage it as best they can.


3. Meaningful Work is Highly Motivating:  It has long been known that work we consider meaningful and important provides the intrinsic motivation we need to sustain a greater level of effort over an extended time period.  Instead of just mining coal to create electric power, the miners were moving coal to save their lives and aid their rescuers toward a more rapid conclusion.  Oftentimes employees lose the significance of their work and hence their motivation suffers. Keeping that mission alive in people can be hugely motivating.   


4. Common Goals Energize Workers: When work teams are threatened by the same forces, whether it is trapped in mine, winning a large new account, or overcoming a major obstacle for team success, they become more united.  All within group competition  becomes trivial and the each worker becomes more focused toward team goal accomplishment. As work teams lose sight of any common threats to their team's survival, workers often forget about the need for all to band together and meet the broader organizational goals, and ultimately the survival of the entire organization.


5. Routine Work is Comforting: The miners work was repetitive. While it may not be motivating over the long run, repetitive work in the context of their situation helped to keep them busy and allowed for less time to ruminate about their own  plight. When a crisis or massive change hits an organization (e.g., downsizing, being acquired, forced relocation, etc.) people need to deal with the stress of uncertainty. Focusing on controllable and predictable routine work helps.