Lessons from the world's toughest workplace

  • Rachael Robertson led a team of 18 strangers in the wilderness of Antarctica for one whole year including nine months of darkness with no escape from the cold, howling winds or each other. Having responded to a newspaper advertisement, she became one of the youngest ever expedition leaders and the second female to lead a group to Davis Station.

The Antarctic winter is harsh – temperatures hover around minus 35 degrees Celsius, constant blizzards, months of darkness, and you can't get in or out of the place. Work becomes tedious and your sense of purpose is sapped by the knowledge that nothing will change until the re-supply ship arrives, a distant nine months away.

It sounds extreme. But the reality is that every workplace has an Antarctic winter. Every business has a period of time where the work slows down. Sometimes, whole nations face an Antarctic winter, whether it's doubt over a debt ceiling or political upheaval, these times slow down confidence and mean that for some, work is just work. There are no big, audacious projects on the horizon and capital expenditure slows to a trickle. In these times, more than ever, leaders must find ways to inspire their people and retain the best staff, ready for the inevitable upswing.

In Antarctica, I used five tools to keep my team inspired, motivated and resilient through the long Antarctic winter.

1. No triangles

The practice of only having direct conversations built respect within my team and resulted in very high performance. We had a simple rule: "I don't speak to you about him, or you don't speak to me about her." No triangles; go direct to the source. It's a powerful tool that reduces conflict and clarifies accountability.

The practise of No Triangles also ensures your time is spent dealing with issues that matter. Those have the most impact on the organisation, not handling personal disputes that simply burn energy.

It also shuts down “answer shopping”, people who keep asking the same question and go over people's heads, or around people, until they get the answer they want.

During the Antarctic winter – a bit like the long slog in some businesses between project milestones – interpersonal pressures increase and the focus can quickly turn from the work to the people. In these situations it's even more crucial to have "no triangles". Personal conflicts are magnified in quieter periods, unlike the heady times where we often overlook or put aside another person's annoying behaviour.

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Go direct to the source to build a culture of respect. Once your culture is set the way you want it, you can chose the most appropriate leadership response, be it a democratic approach, delegation or command-and-control.

2. Manage your bacon wars

A major dispute once threatened to shut down the station: should the bacon be soft or crispy?

Every workplace has their "bacon wars". They are seemingly small, irrelevant issues that grate on people but build up until they become distractions and affect productivity. It may be dirty coffee cups; people who are consistently late for meetings; people playing on phones while someone is presenting. They appear to be small offences, but in reality they are usually a symptom of a deeper issue.

Leaders must identify and probe their bacon wars. Find out what's underneath and resolve it.

For us, it turned out the bacon war was a manifestation of something deep and important: respect between two teams.

3. Find a reason to celebrate

Recognise milestones and important moments. If you don't have one readily apparent, then create one. Find a reason. In Antarctica we celebrated big events but also the smaller successes such as a month without a power blackout, significant scientific data collection or uninterrupted internet access with a fully functioning server.

Usually it was just a notice on the whiteboard in the dining hall, but it was important to find the time to stop and celebrate. Because these moments create momentum. They give a sense of progress, moving forward and getting closer to our outcomes.

During long projects – or even at times when it's business as usual – an inspiring leader will find a reason to stop and salute even small accomplishments. Whether it's with an event, a reward or a simple thank you, the acknowledgement and recognition will reaffirm their purpose and demonstrate progress.

4. Check in on people

As you receive reports and updates on projects, take a moment to ask: “Are you OK?” Not the project, not the tasks, but you – the person. People respond with commitment and loyalty when they know both they and their contribution is valued.

To show people they are valued, check how they are travelling. Make it spontaneous and often. These moments will create momentum. As author and poet Maya Angelou put it so succinctly: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

5. Respect trumps harmony

My expedition team was the most diverse team I've ever worked with. I didn't recruit them, I was handed them and told “make it work!” We were from vastly different backgrounds, a mix of professional skills including scientists, engineers, IT, trades, pilots and weather specialists. The only generalist role was mine: Station Leader.

With such a mix of people it was impractical to think we'd all get along with each other all the time. The interpersonal pressure was intense and privacy was scarce. It would be unreasonable to expect total harmony, so I didn't. Instead, we aimed for respect. Simple, professional courtesy and respect.

I have grave concerns for any team that, explicitly or implicitly, expects team harmony. It's dangerous for two main reasons. Firstly, dysfunctional behaviour still continues, it just goes underground so the illusion of harmony remains. Secondly, it stifles innovation. People are often too afraid to put up their hand and offer a different view, or opinion, because they don't want to rock the harmony boat.

Instead of harmony, teams should aim for respect because respect trumps harmony every time.

More than ever, business leaders need to inspire teams through the dark times. The sun will eventually rise again but in the meantime, keep your people motivated and resilient by taking care of the little things and turning moments into momentum.

Rachael Robertson's book, Leading on the Edge, is published by Wiley and is available in leading bookstores and at for $29.95.