“What’s the deal? Tell those guys to hurry up.” “Man, we’re gonna get smoked if we miss this.” Our night had barely started, and already it was not going well, despite the amount of training all 28 of us had put in.
Training for what, you ask? We were participating in an endurance event put on by special operations folks who attempt to build better Americans through physical and mental stress. They seem to enjoy doling it out, all in the name of fostering teamwork and leadership.
Each of us had on a 35-plus pound ruck (a fancy word for backpack), with a couple hundred feet of chain looped in the top handle of each, stretched out in one long column. We were quite literally bound to the men to our front and rear, so there was only so much each one could do to push the pace.
I was sent on a quick mission to grab some weight from the back of the stack, so I jogged back to the end of the line, and started asking how things were going. “This is terrible” “Hey can you help untangle me?” “Uggh!” I wanted to complete my task and get back up front as quickly as possible, since me being free meant that someone else was holding my extra weight. I could’ve easily brushed off their situation with a quick “Yep, terrible. Gotta go.”
Instead, I took a moment and found that the U-shaped formation we’d been walking in had caused the chain to get twisted around some of the ruck handles, so guys were tripping over each other’s heels. With no way to get free or reorganize, they couldn’t fix what was wrong, and we kept falling behind. I helped create some slack in the chain as best I could, and took a ruck or two to help untwist them.
Most importantly, I ran back up to the front of the column and told the Team Leader (TL) what was happening. I communicated that the guys in the back would be much happier — and faster — if we went back to one long column, and we devised a strategy that I’d start at the back and push the pace, rather than trying to pull from the front.
It worked. We narrowly made our time goal and gained some confidence knowing we could pull ourselves out of a rough spot. We went on to bigger and better things over the next 20 (and for some, 40) hours.
Sometimes we’re so focused on our own struggles that we don’t think to solicit or offer help. Sound familiar? We had fallen right into the trap of letting communication take a back seat and trying to just tough it out. How often have I done the same in my work or home life? The answer to “how can I help?” should never start with the phrase “I just need to…”
In the wake of the Challenger disaster many years ago, the investigation revealed part of NASA culture which figured heavily in the terrible event. Engineers would routinely bring problems or challenges to management. Nobody likes bad news, especially when under stress, and often the reaction was not “Tell me more, let’s figure out how to fix it,” but rather “Why are you telling me this, we don’t have time, it’s probably nothing. It’s always been that way and the last flight went fine.”
Over time, that culture built on itself to the point where the engineers no longer bothered to bring problems to management. Their learned helplessness took on its own life, and serious issues went uncorrected or unnoticed. The ultimate result played out on that fateful day in January 1986.
How often do you react to bad news, or even just to news of your spouse or child’s bad day, with furrowed eyebrows, a sigh, or a look that says “I don’t have time for this right now?” I’m guilty on an almost daily basis, and I’m trying my best to change.
I’m constantly learning that communication is not a scheduled activity. “Ok, let’s sit down and communicate.” Sometimes that’s important, and the engineer in me would love if that were the end of it. It’s not. Not even close.
Healthy relationships require communication. Successful communication starts with openness, and not just when it’s convenient. How about this – the next time you’re faced with news you don’t want, or don’t wish to hear at the time, thank the other person for sharing. Grateful words will lead to a grateful mind, and a grateful mind to a grateful heart. It’s worth a shot. Now hurry up, that log’s not going to carry itself.♦