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The Power Of Language In Project Teams – Be Careful What You Say

The Hidden Power Of What You Say And Don’t Say

The Power Of Language In Project Teams – Be Careful What You Saytest
Written by:
Rebecca Stephens MBE
Rebecca Stephens MBE

‘I will tolerate no dissension up there. My word will be absolute law, beyond appeal. If you don’t like a particular decision I make, I’d be happy to discuss it with you afterward, not while we’re up on the hill.’ These the words of Adventure Consultants’ mountain guide, Rob Hall, who was caught in a blizzard while trying to make his way down from Everest’s summit, and tragically died. His wasn’t the only death. Three of his team died, as well as Mountain Madness lead guide, Scott Fischer, in an event recorded in a flurry of mountaineering literature and film, as ‘the 1996 Everest disaster’.

To cite a specific cause of this disaster would be, as one of the guides concluded, ‘to promote an omniscience that only Gods, drunks, politicians, and dramatic writers can claim.’ There were a multitude of contributing factors. But one little explored and potentially of huge value for future expeditions and also, in a broader context, complex organisations and corporates too, is the use of language. Former US Navy submarine captain David Marquet, author of the global bestseller Turn the Ship Around, recently published a second book, Leadership is Language, The Hidden Power of What you Say and What you Don’t, in which he looks at the language spoken by the crew of the cargo ship El Faro that sank near the Bahamas during Hurricane Joaquin on 1st October 2015, with the loss of all 33 people on board. There are striking parallels with the 1996 Everest disaster, and such logic in Marquet’s observations around the use of language, that it would suggest that greater consideration of our words spoken, and unspoken, might not only help to avert disaster in the mountains and at sea, but universally, relevant in the running of organisations and the management of projects around the world, particularly when it comes to speaking truth to power and the declaration of issues that leaders of organisations might be reluctant to hear.

On Everest in 1996, Rob Hall had far more experience than his clients, and as leader of the expedition, naturally held a position of status. He had guided 39 clients to the summit and would have witnessed at first hand, many times, a disorder that regularly strikes climbers on the upper reaches of Everest, namely summit fever – this, a condition, when so great is a climber’s ambition, that rationality is abandoned and emotions rule, and he or she moves inexorably upwards toward the summit with little regard to the cost to themselves and often others, too. It is essentially a specific example of a broader cognitive bias, known as the sunk cost effect – the tendency for people to escalate commitment to a course of action in which they’ve already made substantial investments, even in the face of evidence that the course of action is failing. I’ve got this far, re-mortgaged the house, I’m not giving up now!

To avert this risk of self-inflicted harm, Rob Hall came up with the universally accepted ‘one o’clock rule’, which states that climbers must reach the summit by 1.00pm – 2.00pm at the very latest – or else turnaround and forego the summit to ensure a safe return to the high camp before oxygen bottles run dry and darkness falls, and the chance of survival is close to zero. Hall’s clear statement of authority, ‘I will tolerate no dissension up there…’, would have served as warning to anyone who might argue with him if he directed them to turnaround before the summit. Unfortunately, however, it also served to ensure his clients were essentially passive. The message conveyed was that Hall was the thinker, not them, and discouraged them from raising concerns even when, as it turned out, this would have been wholly appropriate. Sadly, Hall’s statement of authority also overlooked the uncomfortable truth, that he, too, could be inflicted with summit fever, even if on behalf of someone other than himself. It was around 4.00pm that Hall assisted his client, Doug Hansen, the final few feet to the summit, before turning around to make the long descent. Meanwhile, what had appeared ‘as a rising tide of cloud’ earlier in the afternoon turned into a raging storm. Rob Hall and his client Doug Hansen both died high on the mountain, along with one of his guides, Andy Harris, and Scott Fischer.

Looked through this lens of language, arguably Scott Fischer’s choice of words, as well, played a part in this tragic outcome. ‘We’ve got the Big E figured out, we’ve got it totally wired. These days, I’m telling you, we’ve built a yellow brick road to the summit.’ Such bravado, and yet we know that he arrived at base camp exhausted, and only continued to lose strength on the mountain. His words, always affecting a jocular tone, veiled the truth and were seemingly more powerful than what the eyes could see, that he was struggling. He climbed slower than his clients and was still plodding toward the summit as they were on their way down, and yet nobody thought to mention that he looked exhausted. Said Neil Beidleman, a guide on Fischer’s expedition, ‘He just sort of raised a hand. He looked like he was having a hard time, but he was Scott, so I wasn’t particularly worried.’ That was the last time that he saw him. Later, Beidleman expressed that he had had serious reservations about people climbing past midday on that fateful day on Everest, but didn’t feel comfortable telling Fischer and other team members that they should turn around, because of his perception of his place in the expedition pecking order. ‘I was definitely considered the third guide…so I tried not to be too pushy. As a consequence, I didn’t always speak up when I should have, and now I kick myself for it.’

This is a classic case of a power gradient, namely the social distance between one person and another – how we feel hierarchy in human relationships. The steeper the power gradient, the harder it is to tell the boss something they don’t want to hear. Employees will tend to edit out bad news, draft and reword emails, and button lips when the boss suggests an idea, whether or not they think it’s a good one. It’s the absolute order of things, more obvious in some professions than others, but repeated in just about every sector you care to look at. It’s been famously documented in aviation, in what’s called the cockpit gradient; it was in part responsible for the sinking of the El Faro; and the reason, in organisations across the world, that project teams frequently fail to have the conversations they should be having with their project sponsors. The senior leader may be aloof, unapproachable or unfriendly, and the throwing around of phrases such as, ‘Don’t tell me about the issues, just tell me what we’ve actually done,’ or, ‘Look, don’t talk to me about this, I’ve had to do this a hundred times before, it always works,’ only goes to support this. The resultant breakdown in communications – perhaps about an impending crisis, a new risk, or loss of resource – can jeopardise a successful outcome. As an example, Crossrail was cited in a document published by authority of the House of Commons in January this year, Lessons from Major Projects and Programmes. It reported that people at the working level at Crossrail understood exactly the lack of progress with systems integration, but that this information wasn’t passed upwards in the organisation. Speaking truth to power, and the declaration of issues that leaders might not want to hear, is something that at one level enables the smoothest possible running of projects, and at another, saves lives. So how do we encourage it?

In his book, Leadership is Language, Marquet suggests that to create a world where words flow freely up the hierarchical ladder as well as down, people need to feel psychologically safe, and that, Marquet argues, comes from the top. Psychological safety isn’t created by suppressing challenging statements and uncomfortable points of view; rather, it is created by deliberately encouraging such views – and for this you need thoughtful use of language. He summarises as follows:

  • Instead of creating separation, whether physical or emotional, create connection
  • Instead of doing thing to or for people, do things with people
  • Instead of reinforcing authority, reduce it
  • Instead of judging, observe and describe

In our mountaineering example, Rob Hall, despite the best intentions, failed dismally in this regard. Expressions such as, ‘I’m the boss here,’ or ‘It’s my decision,’ should be avoided. That might seem obvious and simple enough but other subtle changes in the use of language might require a little more practice. For example, if we are to avoid doing things to or for people, then our language needs to shift from ‘I need you to make a decision,’ (decision assigned to) or ‘I need you to do this,’ (decision made for) to something along the lines, ‘We need to decide about this.’ (decision-making with.) When it comes to reducing rather than reinforcing authority, then the turn of phrase might be, ‘Your opinion matters here,’ or, ‘Your fresh eyes will help with new perspectives’. And in an effort to observe rather than judge, then a small shift in language – using nouns instead of verbs – can usefully transfer the critique from the person to the task. ‘That report is poorly written,’ for example, is far less harsh and yet just as accurate as, ‘You wrote that report poorly.’ Better still would be an observation, ‘I noticed three spelling errors in the report.’

Then, there is the at once honest and magical expression, ‘I don’t know.’ It might be difficult to say but holds power in revealing one’s vulnerability and as a result, connecting with the team. And it is the start of a journey of learning and discovery… ‘Does anyone else know?’, ‘Let’s look it up,’ ‘How can we test it?’, the very fundamentals of a growth mindset for continuous improvement.

Examples of activities that can benefit enormously from the sympathetic use of language are innovation and planning. Both operate at their best when people have different ideas, or better still, opposing ideas – what Marquet calls ‘variability’. The more variability the better. To be creative and come up with new ideas, we want to cast the net wide. To learn, we need to be prepared to discard old ideas and adopt new ones. And to improve our ways of working, we need to broaden our perspectives. The language that embraces variability is open, curious, probabilistic and improvement focused. It sounds like, How do we know? How safe is it? How can we be sure? How can we increase the probability of success? What are the alternatives? How do you see it differently? How might this go wrong? It is the language of curiosity and vulnerability.

It is also hard work. All those added options come with increased cognitive burden, to be considered and weighed. It can also be very easily undermined by the very human wish to conform. It requires a positive invitation to dissent, and permission to do so – psychological safety once again. One helpful tip if, say, nine people on a team agree on a new idea, or plan, is to call upon the tenth member of the team to come up with an opposing opinion, and for everyone in the team to challenge the idea and share why the group might be wrong.

But one of the biggest pitfalls when it comes to language in the project cycle, is specific definition of terms, so what exactly is meant by a ‘launch date’? Is it the forecast launch date, the best-case launch date, a stretch-challenge launch date, or just the date to make sure you’re transferred off the project team before the inevitable chickens come home to roost!

Skarbek suggests two strategies to mitigate this risk. The first is to actively involve senior stakeholders, or at least the sponsor, in integrated planning sessions. This builds trust in the process, and it’s much harder for a senior figure to top-down truncate a plan he or she helped create! And the second is to develop a common language for describing launch dates – one that everyone on the team agrees and understands. The date must always have a descriptor. For example, ‘aspirational launch date’ might be used to describe a target for which there hasn’t yet been developed a robust plan for delivery. Latest ‘estimate’ might be used to describe the current forecasted launch date. Other descriptors include ‘forecast’, ‘stretch’, ‘earliest’, ‘challenge’, ‘intended’, ‘confirmed’, and ‘last feasible’.

Here we see careful consideration of the use of language for clarity. We have also examined how thoughtful use of language can encourage the very best thinking from every member of the team, and how it can help to flatten hierarchies to encourage people to declare issues and speak truth to power. Marquet reminds us that we have two ears and one mouth, and that we should listen and speak in that ratio. But of course, there are things to be done as well as to think about; indeed, the whole point of the thinking is to act. Marquet differentiates cognitive, creative, decision-making work – blue work, he calls it – from the active ‘red work’ of doing. And suggests it is helpful to chunk red work, and call pauses, to think again and check that the direction of travel is still the right one.

On Everest, on a summit day, there are two obvious places to call a halt to the exhausting red work of putting one step in front of the other in the rarefied air, and make time – only a moment is necessary – for some collective blue work to check on one another’s cognitive biases and question whether the right action is to continue or turn around. One place is where the climb up from the South Col meets the South East Ridge at 8,320m, a point called the Balcony, where there is room enough, just, for people to gather and share thoughts. And the second is the South Summit, at 8,750m, from where you look along the shark-fin summit ridge to the Hillary’s Step, knowing that just beyond lies Everest’s summit, still to show itself. To climb on from this point is to truly commit to a journey to the summit and back to the South Summit again, of around three hours.

I climbed Everest back in 1993, on a less than perfect day, with Sherpas Ang Passing and Kami Tchering. The upper reaches of the mountain were deserted but for ourselves and three climbers we met and passed early in the day, after just a couple of hours climbing from the South Col. One of the climbers had been struggling with the cold, the other two helping her. On our descent we met one of these three climbers again, on the South Summit (the other two, we learned, had turned around). He was climbing without supplemental oxygen and as such wasn’t carrying a rucksack, which gave him an air of looking oddly relaxed. He looked at his watch. It must have been between 1.30pm and 2.00pm. ‘Too late,’ he said, and turned around. He had taken just a moment to switch from red to blue work, to pause for thought. Alone, his wasn’t a language spoken aloud, but it was language nonetheless. His internal dialogue asked the right questions at the right time, and allowed the rational part of his brain to overrule his emotions that undoubtedly must have been running high, just when needed. This is a man I would most certainly want on any team.