Every once in a while there’s an experience, an episode at work that sticks with you for a long time. Something unrelated occurs, or you smell or see something and you’re instantly catapulted back to a time, a place, a confrontation, an event.
As I was writing the previous newsletter about difficult conversations I found myself back in Antarctica… back to the week the summerers left and 18 of us remained on land, preparing for 9 months alone, no new faces, no way in and no way out.
That’s when my problem with bourbon started…
If you’ve heard me speak or have read Leading on the Edge, you’ll remember that Antarctic expeditions have two main groups, those that go down to “do science” and go home at the end of summer, and the winter crew, those who are left behind with the sole purpose of keeping the lights on until the new batch of summer crew arrive, 9 months later.
Everyone, both summerers and winterers have to purchase their own alcohol supplies prior to leaving Australia***. Not a small feat, working out how much you will drink over a 12 month period! Every now and then, someone will over-cater for themselves, and reach the end of summer with their personal stocks still intact.
One scientist, lets call him George, had struck up a mateship with one of my winterers, Ringo (not his real name!). In a spirit of generosity George had “gifted” his 4 remaining bottles of bourbon to Ringo, ‘cause, that’s something that mates do. Ringo got the bottles, applied a new white sticky label with his name clearly printed and asked me to put them back into the alcohol store, also known as "Fort Knox".
That’s all pretty straightforward isn’t it? That’s something anyone would do anywhere… well… anywhere except Antarctica. There was an unwritten but oft-spoken rule, that whatever the scientists left behind became part of the team’s “kitty” for the year. For special occasions, celebrations or events.
I knew what Ringo had done but in the rush to prepare the station for winter I thought I had time up my sleeve and could deal with it later. Wrong…
Before long, there were several members of the winter crew “baggsing” stuff left over from the summer crew. Ugg boots, beer, CDs, even chocolate all started getting stickers on them as some of my team started to get very proprietary about belongings. It was a zero-sum treasure hunt. What I got, you didn’t and so on.
We had intended to survive and enjoy winter through great teamwork, mutual trust and respect and here we were, barely a week in with a newly forming cultural norm, one that could prove destructive and possibly even highly dangerous.
I eventually addressed it, but not before it had become much bigger than it needed to be or ever should have been. I ended up having to have several “difficult conversations” with people to re-instil teamwork (and encourage them to share their loot!).
One conversation, early, at the first time I recognised the issue would have saved hours of distraction and the need to rebuild some relationships.
Over the next few weeks I reflected in my journal about what happened and the role I played. I realised there were three things I could have done differently:
Assess the situation with more focus. Does it run against your values and if so, how badly?
Behaviours that go against your values quickly create similar behaviours in others or unrest. Usually both. It could have been a simple 2 minute discussion, not even a particularly difficult one. Sure Ringo’s nose may have been out of joint for half an hour or so, but it wasn’t a particularly tricky conversation at point. You’re never too busy to protect and build your teams values. So what if the stocktake of cheese didn’t get done on time, or the weekly sit-rep was an hour late?
Address the behaviour, not the person. Ringo didn’t set out to disrupt the team, but it was a poor judgement call. There’s a big difference.
Guard and protect your team’s values as if your life depends on it. Talk early, talk often.
And, if you’re still wondering, I eventually kicked my problem with bourbon!
*** In Antarctica, the expeditioners purchase their alcohol prior to leaving Australia. Their supplies are labelled and put into storage in "Fort Knox". Once a week, usually at 7pm on a Wednesday, a portion of their supplies is given to them by the Expedition Leader. This is to manage the consumption of alcohol in what is an inherently dangerous and hostile environment... Antarctica that is... although the station can get pretty hostile when the chocolate runs out!