The Expedition Challenge Part 2: Team performance under pressure

Matt McfadyenInterview with Matt McFadyen, polar adventurer

In this second part to the two part article we interview Matt to find out more about what he has learnt about leading and working in teams under stress from his experiences in the wild.

Matt is a special guest keynote speaker and facilitator for Tirian's On THIN ICE program, where his experienced contributions create an incredible authentic learning experience

In this article series:

TT: What happens to team motivation under stress, and how can you maintain good morale?

MM: It is easy to get a false sense of security and camaraderie in the team during the initial stages of an expedition. The first 30 minutes on our boat were sheer jubilation for the team as we sailed out through Sydney Heads bound for Antarctica. After months of preparation, the expedition was finally under way and the mix of excitement and relief put everyone on an emotional high. As a result, the team was motivated, engaged and getting along well. But by day 11, morale had hit a real low. The euphoria was smothered by repetitious work and monotony and got worse as the reality of the task at hand set in. The impact on the team was that we withdrew into ourselves, trying to live off our own resources till we reached the Pole. We acted like 5 individuals instead of a team. But it wasn't working. Eventually we had to break through our personal barriers and get the conversations going to act like a team again. We started to realize that if we were going to make it through to the end of our journey, we couldn't just wait till we got there to celebrate – we had to recognize success along the way. We needed to celebrate the little achievements – invisible markers of progress on the open ocean like certain lines of latitude or reaching specific coordinates. We had to find ways of paying attention to what we were doing well rather than focus what was still left to do.

TT: You mentioned that you had to get the conversations going again for the team to function well. Why are these conversations so important?

When we become insular and stop communicating, we begin to bottle things up inside with dangerous results, as I found out myself. Being on watch in the Southern Ocean is a test of psychological and physical endurance. The temperatures are freezing and the seas are huge, crashing over the boat day and night. You are alone on deck while others are cozy in their bunks below. We took one hour shifts on a fixed roster, as that was about the limit for survival. At the end of my shift, my replacement continually turned up a few minutes late. I was annoyed but didn't say anything, but after a few days, I began to feel resentment as I tallied up in my mind the amount of time down below that he had robbed me of. Soon I had begun to despise him and despise everything he did as well. I even remember feeling infuriated by the way he ate and hating the way he slept! I wanted to throw him off the boat. In one particularly bad storm in temperatures of minus 25 degrees, my anger boiled over. When he came up on shift a few minutes late again, my anger unleashed and I grabbed him, and yelled that I wanted to throw him overboard for being late. To my surprise, he immediately apologized. He had thought that the turn of the hour was the time to put his wet weather gear on. He was completely unaware that he was late and didn't even realize the consequence of his actions. It was all just miscommunication. It taught me the importance of the critical conversations for teams to work – talking about small issues before they get big.

TT: How big a factor is alignment on an expedition team – ensuring all participants are on the same page?

MM: On the real polar caps alignment is not a luxury, it's a necessity. We had assumed we had good alignment in the team because we all had the same objective – that is, we wanted to reach the South Pole. As the story above shows, we weren't as aligned as we thought. Alignment MUST be achieved in a team as much as possible before the journey begins – not just for good teamwork but also for safety reasons. Once the journey starts, miscommunication or differing motivations can lead to catastrophe if people are not aligned. It is critical to keep analysing the current state and the desired state during the journey to look for gaps and holes in team alignment, so when the crisis hits, the team pulls together rather than tears itself apart.

TT: How important is flexibility in teams and team members?

MM: In extreme environments, constant adjustments are needed, and almost every new situation you face is unique – it's a one off. Change is the one constant. You can learn principles and approaches before you go, but you need to adjust to what the environment throws up at you. At the North Pole, the ice cap is constantly drifting and changing. I once spent 12 hours to walk just 1.8 km over the ice, only to wake up the next day 8 kms behind where I went to bed because of the ice shifts. I didn't plan for that but I did adapt and continued on. You need to be flexible to assess strategies and direction, and to be willing to change if it isn't working out.

 So what can we take away from Matt's experiences?

  1. Recognize success along the way: Honour the little achievements to maintain morale. Don't leave the celebrations till the objective is achieved, but find markers along the way to highlight. Focus on what has been achieved, not just on what is still to do.
  2. Have the critical conversations: Don't bottle up your questions or concerns. Seek an appropriate opportunity to talk issues through with the person(s) concerned to keep team dynamics productive and to help the team achieve a better, more well-rounded result.
  3. Be aware of how your behavior affects the team: In virtual teams, small actions can have big implications. Delaying a conference call may work for you, but how will that affect the person that got up at 3:00am in another time zone, and now has to wait another 30 minutes for it to start, and then has to be back at work at 9am?
  4. Get alignment before you start: Ensure the team has a shared goal and values. Agree on methods of operation and communication. Perhaps develop a team code of conduct to capture your agreed behaviours.
  5. Continue investing in the team to adapt to change: Change is usually thrust on us – whether in the form of changing customer preferences or a new GFC or something else. The team that is flexible and willing to change can better meet the challenges and take advantages of the opportunities. This time and energy is not a distraction from the task, but time well-spent in reaching a better outcome.

Hopefully these simple steps will help you to cope better with the daily adventures life challenges us with!

The ICE experience in real life:

The scenes of jubilation in Chile captured the hearts and imaginations of people worldwide in the past few weeks as all 33 miners were rescued after 70 days trapped underground . A key concern throughout the rescue has been how the extended time in an in isolated and confined environment would effect the miners both emotionally and psychologically. It was fascinating to see the research at the heart of Tirian’s On Thin ICE program put into practice in the care and support of the miners both during and after the rescue, to manage interpersonal dynamics and help the miners function as an effective team for their survival. The Chilean Government brought in experts from NASA, who leads the research in this field in its efforts to find ways for a team to function well on extended space missions. Why not try the On Thin ICE analysis on your team to see how the discoveries of the NASA research can work for you.


At the age of 22, Matt McFadyen joined the crew of a 43-foot yacht to cross the most dangerous ocean on earth in order to reach Antarctica. Having to navigate fields of icebergs while beset by storms of mammoth intensity, Matt was forced to draw on every ounce of courage and perseverance he could muster as nature tested his personal resolve and his team's resourcefulness. The eventful trip involved dealing with waves of up to fifty feet high that often swept across the yacht and knocked it down, and on many occasions the crew was forced to fight for their lives. This harrowing experience brought on a startling appreciation of the raw power of nature and its ability to challenge us, and it inspired Matt and motivated him to continue the journey with further adventures. He has since become the youngest Australian to ski to the North Pole unassisted, and only the second Australian to accomplish this amazing feat three times. In his second expedition, which he completed in April 2006, Matt had to negotiate one of the harshest Arctic seasons in years to reach the top of the world. Matt is a special guest keynote speaker and facilitator for Tirian's On THIN ICE program, where his experienced contributions help to create an incredible authentic learning experience.

The part 1 of this article, "The Expedition Challenge Part 1: Lessons for survival" can be found here >.


One Response to “The Expedition Challenge Part 2: Team performance under pressure”

  1. Fiona Paton says:

    Just read the recent T-Thoughts and had to let you know how much I can identify with it. I’m writing this from Papua and last Sunday I joined an expedition of 40 people (35 Indonesians and 5 expats) to hike to the tropical glacier near Puncak Jaya. It was the absolute hardest biggest physical challenge I have ever done (30km, 13 hours, altitude reaching 4800m, altitude sickness, freezing cold). Half the team didn’t make it. Maybe it was about fitness, for some the altitude caused severe symptoms. I was completely exhausted but know that the only reason I made it to the top was because one person consistently and constantly motivated me, at times just to take another 10 steps forward. If the organisers had thought about how to achieve motivation across the whole team by working together instead of drifting apart as per the article, maybe more would have made it.

    Fiona Paton
    Counselling Psychologist
    International SOS

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