2 Critical factors that saved mine workers in Chile.

Posted by on October 14, 2010 in Blog | 0 comments


The whole world has been eagerly watching the rescue of 33 Chilean miners who have been trapped underground for over 2 months and marvelling at their resilience. Hundreds of TV hours have been dedicated to the near tragedy since they became trapped – all with the single theme: Is it possible that they can survive, and what will the effect be on their mental state? 2 factors above all else led to their survival. They were together and they had leadership!

There is actually a significant body of knowledge and research available on how people react to and deal with disasters. Especially, post 9/11 psychologists and researchers have examined what it takes to be a survivor.
The main factor that contributed to their lengthy survival could be that they were not alone!

After planes crashed into the World Trade Centre, literally hundreds of survivors attributed their survival to the fact that others – strangers – forced them to join the evacuation. Many people waited as long as an hour before starting down the fire escapes on the insistence of others. People tend to go into a first phase of denial after a catastrophe. Wishing it away and not taking deliberate action.

In disasters, people find safety in numbers. The London transit bombings in July 2007 also provided psychologists with some powerful lessons in how people deal with tragic situations. One passenger reported that he “needed others for comfort” and another explained to a psychologist that “I felt better knowing that I was surrounded by people.” The same level of camaraderie in the face of danger has also been observed in primates. Chimpanzees cluster together and often hug and touch each other when danger is present.

One study of mining disasters found that miners found that miners tended to follow their groups even though they disagreed with the group’s decisions. Grown men, when trapped underground would rather make a fatal mistake by submitting to groupthink than to being left alone!

Of course, the Chilean disaster has a happy ending. All 33 survived and I doubt they’ll ever fully appreciate the feat that they’ve accomplished. Rest assured, sociologists and psychologists from all over the world are already rushing to get interviews, complete batteries of tests and writing a myriad of theses.

But whatever studies are done, one thing is certain. The “group” aspect and “herd mentality” was a significant contributor to survival. In motion studies of herds or sheep, it has been found that there is an instinctive clamouring for the middle of the herd, as opposed to the outer edges, because that is where it is safest. Furthest from danger.

Another factor is people’s willingness to follow a leader who is keeping their head and taking action while everyone else is wondering what to do. Contrary to how Hollywood portrays panic in movies, studies from actual disasters tend to be devoid of accounts of people running around aimlessly and screaming! In survivor accounts from both 9/11 and London’s transit bombings, survivors report that people remained calm and generally followed clear and specific directions. Air crews dealing with airline crashes also report that passengers will move in groups, but will only do so on clear and firm instruction. Politeness they say has little place when evacuating a burning aircraft.

When the Beverly Hills Supper Club outside Cincinnati burned down killing several hundred people, literally hundreds of other lives were saved when a busboy, overcoming stage fright, walked onto the stage where the dinner theatre show was being staged, took the microphone and calmly pointed to the exits and ordered everyone to leave.

So the miners can also thank whoever took charge in their “darkest” hour of need.

How can we apply these lessons in Leadership and Group Think to our business life?

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