Why Teams Fail: A Higher Altitude View

Don Schmincke

“I don’t know what else to do,” said the HR manager of a large manufacturing company. “We’ve just completed another team-building program to help get rid of the silo mentality and selfish politics around here but nothing seems to last.”

“Did you know that the failure rate data on these types of training programs range from 70 to 100% depending on the study?” I said. She fell back in her chair. “They failed to mention that when they sold me the program.” She felt like she had been duped.

Many well-intended team-building programs frustrate HR executives when they fall short of their promises. But why do some teams perform while others flounder even with the same training methods?

We found clues during our research of teams in the death zone; that altitude above 26,000 feet which makes long-term survival impossible because of the lack of oxygen. Climbing teams bear a resemblance to corporate teams. Some live passionately to achieve challenging missions, others behave like dysfunctional committees. They both come with all levels of implementations from naïve textbook copycats to deep accountability-driven groups. And when put to the test, climbing teams and corporate teams react similarly: sometimes rising to the occasion, other times running for cover.

Expeditions to the world’s highest mountains provide the perfect laboratories to examine the challenges every team faces. At these extreme altitudes success or failure is easily measured, and simple mistakes kill team members. Here, we expected to find new principals that separate the great teams from the not so great, but we found something else. Teams who produce peak performance in the face of extreme challenges – what we call high altitude teams –are remarkably different. Rather than being seduced by the latest teamwork platitudes, clichés or feel-good theories, they instead succeed by recognizing and surviving specific dangers; dangers that always emerge when a team moves to higher levels of performance. New theories don’t make these teams great, but overcoming these dangers does. In the most extreme situations, on the battlefield or in the mountains, losing to these dangers results in death.

We personally learned a lot about these dangers when leading groups that have to perform at the peak of their ability in the most extreme circumstances. It’s no surprise that we find the same dangers when we help corporations develop their teams. Specifically, we find that four dangers specifically haunt high-altitude teams: Selfishness, Tools Seduction, Cowardice, and Lone Heroism.

Selfishness: At altitude, selfishness kills people when teamwork is critically needed to deal with injuries, equipment malfunction, limited resources, and threats of avalanche and weather. In corporate teams, selfishness kills performance and projects. First, it infects a team when one or more of its members:

  • Let their career or personal agendas supersede the team’s mission.
  • Think that being right is more important than collaboration and dialogue.
  • Take individual credit for team achievements, while blaming the team for its failures.
  • Are unwilling to compromise or seek consensus during conflict.

Then the damage escalates as fifteen-minute meetings start taking an hour, projects take twice as long as necessary, members say something outside the team meeting that should’ve been said in the meeting or talk about someone instead of challenging them directly.

What seems like innocent office politics brings down the best of teams. Post-mortem business case-studies blame the failures on reasons like strategic missteps or poor implementations of good ideas. But digging deeper among the carcasses we find that selfishness alone drove the denial, avoidance, blindness, or cover-ups until it was too late.

High Altitude teams, on the other hand, are driven by a fervor and zeal for achieving the team’s results – what we call a compelling saga (from the ancient Norse term) – and this inspires passion greater than selfish ego’s agenda. Is your team driven by a passionate saga, or just empty words in a mission statement?

Tool Seduction: In mountaineering, tool seduction endangers climbers every time they dress in the latest gear but apply the wrong techniques and behaviors to the challenge. In their overconfidence (or naiveté) they end up lost on a storm-ravaged slope for days while experienced climbers are at base camp having a beer and watching the weather. Similarly, the danger from a parade of experts packing the latest tools for organizational change, leadership development, process improvement, teambuilding and other management methods bog down progress and distract teams from focusing on the vital issues.

But tools are important, right? Yes. Tools offer hope. Tools make people feel like they have the right answer. Who dares argue with the ideas from a best-selling business book? But the results aren’t pretty when you get seduced by the buzzwords and cool concepts. Teams fail when tools become crutches for “safe” answers, or worse, weapons to use against each other. And in critical moments, even the best tools break or fail, resources are lost, or circumstances change. So, the problem isn’t with the tools, but how teams relate to them.


Is the team using the tools, or are the tools using the team? Industry feels the costs and risks of tool seduction every day:

  • “Our team had all the measurement charts on the wall that they trained us to have but we couldn’t figure out what we needed to do differently.”
  • “Why did our R&D team have to take a TQM class? I mean how are we supposed to measure the quality of creativity and breakthrough? The classes were a distraction. It was ridiculous.”
  • “Why did we have to waste so much time on Six Sigma? I mean we were only making bottle caps. They worked great at Three Sigma!”
  • “Our team still hasn’t recovered from the cultural damage of our latest reengineering effort.”

High Altitude teams only use tools that drive team success, and don’t get distracted by industry fashion trends. They know that tool seduction can suck productivity and morale out of a team so they adapt the tools and focus on behavior – the actions and decisions made – which truly drives high performance results. Do your team’s tools allow it to act decisively, or just clog your shelves with interesting, but irrelevant, information? Do these tools fuel team passion for the challenge ahead, or derail production with useless meetings, lingo, and processes?

Cowardice: Cowardice dangerously stops both mountaineering and corporate teams from challenging the status quo, holding each other accountable, and exposing weaknesses. This danger happens as soon as team members are too afraid to confront violations of accountability, take necessary risks, or maintain team principles and values during times of trouble. And it causes team failures by stopping the essential act needed for effective execution…tell the truth.

Cowardice eats truth. Lack of truth eats team performance. Initially telling the truth can upset people and cause discomfort, but good teams love it and it drives accountability to new levels. The alternative of keeping the truth at unspeakable levels only produces collateral damage which can include accumulating dead-weight from marginal team members and sticking with doomed projects are too long. High altitude teams develop bravery which allows them to achieve the accountability, risk-taking, commitment, and truthful communication necessary for achieving their goals.

Rather than reveal the truth about a situation, does your team choose avoidance, denial, and silence in order to avert possible discomfort, anger, retribution, and other unpleasantness? Do team members hide or only whisper about the uncomfortable team issues?

Lone heroism: The danger of a selfish, glory-seeking lone-hero breaks a team as they step on other team members without even removing their crampons. Lone heroism contributes to higher operating costs, lower innovation, increased risks, delayed execution, higher turnover, and missed sales opportunities. The lone hero’s journey makes for compelling literature, but in real-life human experience dating back to the earliest prehistoric times, it typically equates with failure and death. High altitude leaders choose a different path: partnership – engaging and leveraging others to help them.


Imagine how much more productive teams would be if lone heroes spent less time proving their superiority and more time producing results. Lone-hero damage can be extensive:

  • Slow performance as everyone thinks they’re the only one able to contribute meaningfully.
  • Low accountability from lone-heroes avoiding accountability or usurping it from others by doing their jobs. In an accountability vacuum everyone wonders why nothing is getting done.
  • Misaligned direction by putting personal agendas ahead of team’s goals.
  • No one wants to work with someone to just make that person look great.
  • Is there someone the company thinks it can’t live without?

Is lone-heroism happening in your team? Who is trying to do it all? Who thinks it’s a sign of weakness to ask for help? Or, worse, who thinks he or she is the only one who can do something right?

Viewing team failures from a higher altitude lets us see the hidden dangers which derail most well-intended team building methods. Which dangers most threaten your team?


Written by Don Schmincke, Strategic Growth Advisor, Keynote Speaker, and Best Selling Author. Schmincke Research Alliance. http://www.sraleadership.com/ Reprinted with the permission of PR/PR. For in-depth articles on talent management, get your FREE subscription to the Drake Business Review magazine. Our global publication focuses on your talent management issues and provides solutions from thought leaders and industry experts around the world.

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