The Cost of Poor Communication: A Lesson from the 1996 Everest Disaster

Back in 2015, a movie was released entitled Everest.

This film tells the story of two mountain guides and their groups of adventurous mountaineers scaling to the world’s highest point: 8,848 meters above mean sea level.

Not a task for the faint of heart! People who dream of summiting Everest must train for at least a year to face the physical challenges of the cold weather and harsh terrain. They must painstakingly plan their hike and manage their timing, too.

But the teams in the film are determined to conquer the mountain.

In the face of a truly unforgiving environment, the crew summits Everest. But then things take a turn for the worse. A few complications begin to compound, and many members of the teams find themselves stranded and overexerted in the cold. Some of the climbers’ lives are taken in the catastrophe.

Everest is a truly heartbreaking film. But worse yet, it is based on a true story.

In May 1996, Everest expert guides Rob Hall and Scott Fischer led their groups to the peak of the mountain. Of the 38 that climbed to the peak, 8 would sadly not return.

The causes that contributed to the disaster are complicated to say the least – bad weather, bottlenecks causing delays, and poor decision-making among them. But one underlying cause sent the whole thing spiraling out of control: lack of effective communication.

Some of the climbers were not advised of shifts in the weather, so they could not adequately prepare themselves. Some were not clearly told how to descend safely after summitting. And overall, a lack of communication kept teams from being able to properly coordinate their efforts.

Now, there is a good chance that your daily work does not send you into sub zero temperatures and unsafe oxygen levels. But communication problems very well might be causing problems in your workplace.

For your team, for your organization, for your customers, for your strategic goals and initiatives – communication is foundational. Of Forbes’ 12 most important skills needed to succeed in the workplace, 6 of them are communication-related. It is that important.

How are your communication skills?

Take a moment to brush yourself up on communication basics, and take the next week to practice this all-important skill. Which of these five fundamental FACETs of effective workplace communication will you try to improve?

1. Feedback.

Feedback is not just an important part of the learning process – it also helps engage and involve team members. As well, team members feel more confident when they get direct input from their leaders. Provide your team with regular, practical, and constructive feedback so they can improve their performance.

2. Active listening.

Communication is a two-way process, and leaders often forget the part of the process that involves staying silent and giving our team members our ears. Active listening communicates to your team members that you value their perspective.

Be intentional about creating an environment where your team feels comfortable offering their input to you.

3. Clarity.

Be clear – crystal clear – because everyone who listens to you is listening with different ears and different minds, lending to differing interpretations. And confused people do nothing. Set expectations and goals by communicating often, clearly, and concisely.

4. Empathy.

Active listening communicates that you value your team’s perspectives; empathy communicates that you value their emotions and experiences. Respond to their needs and concerns when they voice them.

5. Timing.

As important as it is to be intentional about how and what you communicate, it is also critical to be mindful of when. Communication does not happen in a vacuum; consider information in the greater context and ask yourself, “Is it best to share this now, or later?”

As we proceed further into 2023, do not allow yourself to fall back into old habits – that is the quickest way to get “old results.”

If you want to try a new approach to improving your communication skills, I have a communication assessment that will offer you new insight about your communication style – so that you can build a foundation of information to work from.

That’s all for now,


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