How An Undefined Culture Nearly Took My Life

I cut my teeth on group work as a trainer and educator in the wilderness. One of my favorite things was taking teams—often groups of C-suite leaders or high-level managers—river rafting.

I did it because it put these leaders in stressful situations, testing their communication skills, agility, and trust.

One trend I observed very quickly was that teams with clearly defined Cultures—a clearly defined “way of doing things”—always endured more stress and, in the end, had more fun on the river trip.

The lesson? When things are fast-moving, treacherous, and scary, having an unbreakable culture will lead to success.

(Hint: things are fast-moving, treacherous, and scary right now—hello, multi-year global pandemic, economic instability, political upheaval…)

But enough with the theory and takeaways—let me tell you about that near-death experience.

In 2007, I joined a group of friends for a recreational trip down the wild and scenic Rogue River in Oregon.

This was not a work trip, and I was not the trip leader. Since we were there to “have a good time,” I didn’t take the lead in laying out agreements about how we’d do things on that trip—I didn’t define our expedition culture, and it nearly cost me and several others our lives.

The first part of the trip was lovely.

A few days in, we had to navigate a rapid called Picket Fence, a Class V Rapid where multiple people had drowned in the past. We all knew this one was to be taken very seriously.

I’d lost a dear friend to whitewater a few years before, and I was pretty anxious.

We walked around the bluff to the top of the rapid to scout the route before rafting down it.

Look at those rapids!

Everyone else seemed to get it quickly, but I struggled to see the line.

From my experience, I thought that “how we do rapid scouting” meant that we wouldn’t leave until everyone could see the safe line through the rapid.

I whispered to the trip leader, “I don’t see the line.”

He showed it to me again with his finger—but I still didn’t get it, and, at this point, I was a bit embarrassed at being the “slow one.”

Despite what I thought, the trip leader said it was sufficient if all of the boat captains knew the line—not everyone.

I decided to nod yes and follow the crowd. After all, I was not the captain of my raft, so I should just follow.

That was a bad call.

All the boats made it through quickly except mine.

You see, our boat had the highest concentration of weak rowers. We were under-equipped to maneuver the line correctly, so the worst possible thing happened.

We were pushed right into the big, gnarly rock—the Picket Fence.

Our boat snagged, flipped, and all 5 of us were in the water—I hit my head, found myself trapped under the boat, and I truly saw my life flash before my eyes.

The swim was nasty!

It’s worth noting that we all survived, but I’ve never really been able to enjoy river rafting since that moment.

Here’s the takeaway:

We were not aligned. There were (at least) two different opinions about how we’d do things in our scouting, two different cultures.

I sincerely believe that if we’d had a clearly defined guideline, we wouldn’t have had to experience a near-death trauma.

If on one had, it was clear and fully embraced that each boat captain was responsible for the safety of the entire boat, then my boat captain would have been empowered to speak up about the fact that we were underpowered. We could have moved a few rowers from different boats into ours and gotten enough power to perform the line.

If, on the other hand, it was clear and fully embraced that every person needed to see the line before we continued, I would’ve been more likely to say to everyone that I did not see the line clearly, we were underpowered and, again, we could’ve done what was necessary to perform the maneuver.

But, because we were stuck in the middle of two approaches, neither of these things happened. Instead, I noted that I would never join those same friends for a river trip again.

While the stakes might not be as high at your workplace (although, if you work in frontline care or healthcare, the stakes might be life or death), the cost of lack of clarity about how you do things is confusion, doubt, and uncertainty.

Employees want to join and stay at work communities where it is obvious how you roll. When it is not obvious in everything you do, people won’t speak up to bring their best; employees will leave for stronger cultures, and you’ll lose money and struggle to achieve your mission.

Defining your culture, which we define as “how you do things,” is difficult, nebulous work. It’s hard to know where to begin.

That’s why we’ve created this 3-hour masterclass.

I’ll have more to say about it tomorrow—for now, I hope this story has shown you just how influential culture is at dictating results, especially when the way is turbulent and the stakes are high (like right now, for example!)

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