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Whether trapped in a mine or cubicle, count on trust and respect

“You just have to speak the truth …”
—Luis Urzua, shift supervisor of “Los 33,” describing how he gave hope and motivation to his team while trapped underground for two months in a 2010 mine collapse.

In August 2010, a sudden cave-in at the San Jose copper and gold mine in Chile’s Atacama Desert blocked a team of 33 miners at a depth of 2,300 feet. While there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty above and below ground, two leaders—André Sougarret, a mining engineer with over 20 years’ experience, and shift foreman Luis Urzua—used a combination of inspiration and motivation to spur a successful rescue with every one of “Los 33” surviving. More than 1 billion people around the world tuned in to follow the dramatic happenings, with organizations as diverse as the Chilean navy, United Parcel Service, NASA, American drilling experts previously stationed in Afghanistan, and Maptek, an Australian 3-D mapping software company, contributing their expertise to resolve the crisis. Multiple tactics were implemented simultaneously using three different drilling systems—dubbed simply Plans A, B and C.

Compelling leadership is a critical component of a successful, high-functioning team. A good supervisor can “make or break” a client project or internal initiative as well as shape the opinions of fellow team members. In a Harvard Business Review article “Leadership Lessons from the Chilean Mine Rescue,” the authors emphasize that “leaders must constantly analyze their changing situation and environment.” They note that the complex rescue required leaders to “perform three key tasks: envision, enroll, and engage.”

For shift leader Luis Urzua, this meant rationing supplies—each miner reportedly ate one teaspoon of tuna and a half glass of milk every 48 hours to last the 17 full days before the miners’ location was discovered and supplies could be delivered to them. During the 52-day rescue phase, the miners restored both order and hope—indeed, they assigned daily tasks and allocated resources; established areas for waste disposal, and used the lighting system to simulate day and night. By implementing a democratic leadership structure, the 33 miners bonded as “Los 33,” filled with hope in their leader, the humble and capable 54-year-old Urzua, a caring and respected shift boss.

While “Los 33” offers an extreme example of leadership in a life-and-death situation, the basic lessons of trust and respect apply universally. In his recent blog “Build a Foundation for Trust,” Great Place to Work institute team leader David Shanklin describes how in his work with organizations, he has found it most effective “to ensure every leader is continually working on one thing: to become a higher-trust leader.” Trust in shared company values gives great workplaces a “predictability” that Shanklin believes is a positive attribute that helps employees better understand how their leaders will act, extinguishing fear and uncertainty in the workplace.

A recent Society for Human Resource Management survey found that 72 percent of employees rank “respectful treatment of all employees at all levels” as the top factor in job satisfaction. Encouraging trust is a critical part of ensuring that employees feel both accountable and empowered. This includes frequent and direct communication. A leader like Urzua was inclined to solicit opinions and include his colleagues in his decision-making. Even when all hope seemed lost, order was always maintained. In an interview with the UK publication The Guardian, Urzua says “Everything was voted on. … We were 33 men, so 16 plus one was a majority.”

A positive attitude and forward-thinking outlook can make the difference between success and failure. Workers in all environments need to rely on their coworkers to create a harmonious environment. Whether you are in a mine shaft or a cubicle, the person closest to you can have a huge impact on your demeanor. Researchers from the University of Florida conducted three experiments in simulated workplace situations and found that incivility in the workplace is contagious. They found that the rudeness of others “can lead to poor work environments and lower productivity,” and this coarse behavior can spread involuntarily—“you respond to their rudeness with your own rudeness,” according to the lead author of the study.

While it was Plan B—a cluster hammer technology from Center Rock, an American company—that ultimately helped rescue the miners, many ideas were introduced yet failed during the rescue process. In a rapidly changing environment, with time scarce, these failures were inevitable and even necessary to learn more about the rock that trapped the miners. Throughout the ordeal, site leader Sougarret always reminded the rescuers of their mission: to save the lives of “Los 33.” This mission might seem so obvious it did not require repeating, but in fact, even the most basic goals should be restated so they are top of mind and instilled in every worker. Whether it is a company’s core values or a formal mission statement or strategy map, these should be ingrained in company culture.

The Harvard Business Review points out that “leaders need to create the psychological safety to learn but integrate it with accountability and motivate people to do their best.” As long as people understand their roles—and respect leadership—problems will get solved even under the most stressful circumstances and from seemingly unlikely sources.

From the depths of a Chilean mineshaft, the leadership lessons apply to even an ordinary office environment—themes of trust, empowerment and camaraderie.

Lauren Dixon is CEO of Dixon Schwabl Inc., a marketing communications firm, which has been honored as a best place to work.

8/28/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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