How Himalayan Mountain Climbers Teach Us to Work Better Together

Five decades of Himalayan treks show how collectivism operates in diverse groups

By studying climbers summiting Mount Everest, Professor Jennifer Chatman learned when collectivism works, and when it can be deadly.

Cooperation is valued as a key attribute of successful groups, encouraging cohesion among diverse members. But Chatman discovered that there can be a high cost when it comes to decision-making and performance because the tentative ties among diverse group members cause them to overemphasize their shared group identity and overlook the individual differences in skills and experience that can help the group succeed.

She calls this a “blurring effect,” which is detailed in her new study, “Blurred Lines: How Collectivism Mutes the Disruptive and Elaborating Effects of Demographic Diversity on Group Performance in Himalayan Mountain Climbing.” The paper is co-authored by Eliot Sherman (PhD 2016, MS 2012), London Business School, and Bernadette Doerr (MS 2015), CrossLead Inc.

The study focuses on the impact of a collectivistic versus individualistic orientation among diverse climbing groups. Promoting a collective mindset is one of the most common solutions to the challenge of managing diverse work groups. But sometimes, emphasizing collectivism can cause groups to blur not only disruptive attributes, but also important differences among members, such as a veteran climber’s expertise.

“This blurring effect, which is cognitive in nature, is among the most profound I’ve seen in my research career. It is easily manipulated and has dramatic consequences. By simply asking people in a diverse group to focus on commonalities within the group, they appear to be unable to also focus on the attributes that differentiate group members from one another. It is like asking people to focus on the forest, which seems to preclude them from also focusing on the trees,” says Chatman, who studies how group norms and group composition influence group performance at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

To study how collectivism fails, the researchers tapped the Himalayan Database, a compilation of all expeditions in the Nepalese Himalaya since 1950. Journalist Elizabeth Hawley began compiling this database in 1960, when she moved from the U.S. to Kathmandu, Nepal, and interviewed thousands of climbers who are required to register their expeditions with the Nepalese government.

The archive documents all climbs, including information about climbers: climbing experience, nationality, and details about the expedition, such as route choices and weather conditions. Chatman focused on a dataset of 5,000 treks and nearly 40,000 climbers and measured them by climbing experience.The comprehensive data set enables researchers to better understand work teams with a single, common goal: to reach the summit, Chatman said.

“Work teams don’t always have a single objective goal. In contrast, the Himalayan expeditions do, making it easier to examine the factors affecting performance with great precision,” she says. “Further, these expeditions are truly international. Most cross-cultural research has been limited to perhaps two or three countries; the Himalayan data includes climbers from a wide range of countries.”

Though all of the climbers had the same goal, to summit, the researchers discovered very different results among the groups based on how they managed the group’s diversity.

The research showed when climbers collectively focused on reaching the summit, rather than more individualistic approaches to doing so, they “blurred”—didn’t pay attention to—their fellow climber’s nationality. This blurring of national differences led to greater summiting successes because nationality is only a disruptive attribute and not one that is related to climbing skill.

But when a broad range of experience that was critical to the climb existed among climbers (for example, some had scaled a Himalayan mountain up to 15 times, while others had only attempted one climb), a different and more deadly pattern emerged. More people died on expeditions with different levels of experience when the group emphasized collectivism because it caused them to ignore the diversity of experience among members.

“They ‘blur up,’ pushing each other more because they fail to recognize that novices have less capability, and consequently, more people died,” says Chatman.

To further test their findings, the researchers also studied decision-making using a simulated expedition in a lab setting. They asked 280 participants or “climbers” to make two critical decisions: how to allocate portable oxygen canisters, and to decide which route to take to Annapurna, the world’s 10th highest mountain.

Participants were told their fellow climbers’ nationality and mountain climbing experience and later asked to recall that information. Subjects cued to be collectivistic were significantly less accurate in recalling differences among their team members than those who were cued to be individualistic.

These collectivists were more likely to give oxygen to foreigners and to someone who would benefit most. (While oxygen is critical, it also adds weight to one’s gear.) National diversity became blurred when collectivism was a priority, resulting in better group performance.

In the second decision, after hearing advice from an experienced team member, participants had to choose between two routes: One that was more direct but dangerous, and the other—recommended by the experienced member—that was less risky but a bit longer. Those who were cued to be collectivistic tended to disregard the advice provided by a more experienced team member because they blurred his or her experience and considered everyone to have similar experience. The downside: not acknowledging and following the advice of a more knowledgeable climber could result in increased injuries, even death.

In the workplace, Chatman’s results suggest that managers should not assume that emphasizing team cooperation is always the best strategy and that some differences among members are important to highlight, even if it means sacrificing some group cohesion. This is because imposing a cooperation norm can cause people to blur distinctions that they should value in order to perform effectively.