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Business Education What the world’s most extreme workplaces can teach us about teamwork

The rescue of 12 boys from a Thai cave this summer was of particular interest to Jelena Brcic, an assistant professor at the University of the Fraser Valley who happened to be studying teamwork among cave explorers just before the incident.

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Like the rest of the world, Jelena Brcic found herself captivated by the daring rescue this summer of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a water-filled cave in Thailand.

Dr. Brcic, however, was no ordinary observer. An assistant professor at the University of the Fraser Valley’s school of business in Abbotsford, B.C., she is an expert in the study of group cohesion in extreme “workplaces," with her studies spanning team work at the International Space Station, combat fields and the top of the world’s highest mountain peaks.

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By coincidence, just months before the Thai cave rescue gripped viewers around the world, Dr. Brcic had turned her attention to cave explorers and what it takes to succeed in one of the toughest environments psychologically and physically.

Caves are inherently unpredictable and potentially hazardous places. As the Thai case exemplified, water changes above ground can cause underground water levels to rise quickly and dramatically. Boulders and rocks can unexpectedly fall from a cave’s ceiling and currents can suddenly and dangerously reverse.

“In general, claustrophobia, feelings of acute loneliness, cramped working conditions, social conflict, the death of friends/fellow party members during the mission, and the ever-present knowledge of potential danger are just some examples of the stressors experienced by cave explorers,” Ds. Brcic and co-author Raymond MacNeil of Queen’s University in Kingston note in the study, published in the Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments.

The study is the first to examine cave exploration in particular, with a focus on coping strategies employed by people who take part in such a challenging activity. Among the qualities studied were the ability to solve problems through a crisis, effectively resolve conflict, find or give emotional and physical support, minimize the seriousness of a threat, regulate one’s emotions and persevere despite the odds.

The study found unique patterns among cave explorers compared with participants of other extreme activities, such as mountain climbers. In particular, says Dr. Brcic in an e-mail, cave explorers tend to “plan and plan and plan before they even begin” an exploration, “as dealing with uncertainty can lead to death.”

Cave explorers also appear to be better able than others to positively reframe stressful events, and draw deep, life-altering meaning from otherwise frightening encounters.

“I was alive, I had experienced a new and delicious sensation that had stimulated me in all my senses. I felt as though I had pressed beyond life and returned, gone out of the world and come back. Surely nothing else could intimidate me now,” one cave explorer notes in a passage cited in the study.

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Examined more broadly, Dr. Brcic says teams of all kinds can draw clear lessons from those who work (and play) in extreme environments. Among them, she recommends expanding one’s expertise beyond a particular specialty.

“This way you can speak as an expert and help your team make decisions, but you can also step in and help with everyone else’s part when necessary,” she says.

The research also highlights the importance of teams working to get to know each other on a more personal level.

“It’s easier to work with people you like,” she says.

As for her thoughts on the Thai cave rescue? “Truly extraordinary.”

But she’ll know more soon. Dr. Brcic is interviewing the main players involved in the rescue for a follow-up report focussed on team structure.

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Story ideas related to business school research in Canada can be sent to darahkristine@gmail.com

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