Cliques during expeditions


Cliques during expeditions and trips


Before the start of an expedition there will be a mix of people, some single travellers, some couples, and some groups. Even the couples can vary, unmarried, recently married, even honeymoon, and long term married. Consider these as mini cliques. I found this 'what is a clique' site with the above header image, and although it is for schools, I think it is still relevant. If the group still looks like this at the end, there is probably a problem.

Cliques can be bad for any group. Even more so with a group of people who have to bump along with each other all day everyday, 24/7. Even the most connected married couple do not normally spend that much time together. However, setting out to dissolve such pre existing cliques to avoid the downsides, would be a detrimental course of action.

Much later in my career I attended a Business Improvement multi-day workshop. The consultants brought in to manage and facilitate the workshop spent the first day demoralizing and destroying the participants. At the end of the first day the team spirit was near non existent, to such an extent that I felt it necessary to intervene and comment to the commissioning directors. In a previous employment I had been a Business Implementation Manager on a £800m Organisational and Cultural Change Programme. Whist there is a body of opinion that destroy and rebuild is an effective change technique I do not agree with this. It is far better, even if it takes a little longer, to build upon existing relationships and interactions, bringing people together and achieving a consensus of change. In a work environment, there is a degree of compulsion, up until the person chooses to leave the company, or becomes disruptive.

Achieving consensus is even more important in an expedition. The EMs are there by choice, and indeed have paid to be there. That in itself is not the main reason. People are happier in a happy environment. It would be untenable to try to dilute the mini clique that is a married couple, or a group of friends going on an adventure together. So rather than dilute, the objective was to build. Join the cliques together, which admittedly is somewhat counter to the definition of the word clique, where a small close-knit group of people who do not readily allow others to join them.

Utopia would be a completely homogenous group all pulling together in the same direction. This of course is not achievable as the group is made up of individual people. In a work environment some employers would prefer two larger but predictable cliques or factions, as predictable divisions and opinions tend to lead to predictable outcomes when manipulated and played against each other. Given the right skills with the right manager, teams of workers can be managed successfully.

However, again, that is not the best solution in either the workplace or on an expedition. You can get a more genuine and honest response where there are no predefined factions. When a group genuinely expresses a split decision on any matter, it is more acceptable to all if it is not inevitable due to preconceived politics and factional dominance. Some occasions some people vote one way and on others with different people. That is the best that can be expected, and is a healthy democracy, on the occasions when it is a democracy. There are more occasions when the team just need to pull in the same direction without question, whether that is running with sand mats, digging out of the mud, or building a bridge. 

Enough painting the picture with psychobabble.

One of the preformed cliques we had at the very beginning of, I think it was the Africa Southbound, was a group of three lads. They were all directors of the same company and all a little older, more mature than the group average. Being directors they were also somewhat more selfassured. They were used to working together and were obviously happy in each others company. They formed a formidable cohesive unit. As the trip progressed they gained a degree of traction and a certain following. Their own little faction. This did on occasion cause a degree of disquiet and disharmony. They would also challenge the Leader/Drivers from time to time. This was not good for the harmony of the group, its cohesion, and its happiness. It took additional effort from the L/Ds to try to manage the situation and defuse the tensions, which diverted effort from elsewhere. Fortunately, as far as I am concerned, I was glad to see one of the directors get a letter, if I recall correctly, at the poste restante in Nairobi, Kenya, which without me knowing the content of the letter, led to him leaving the trip. Nothing against the individual but as a group, with one less selfassured, confident member, the power dynamic changed, for the better, for the whole group. I seem to recall that another of the three left a little further on in the trip.

Please don't misinterpret the significance of this, it was not a bad group, nor abnormally difficult. There are records of much more difficult groups, even some that could justify being called dysfunctional. The only people that this really harms is the group itself. The individuals in the group have paid for the experience. Not for transport from A to B, but the experience of the journey. That experience should be a good one. The interaction of the group has much more influence on good or not, than the places visited. The L/D does of course have a responsibility to provide a healthy environment for a group to be happy and to help create a functional team. Functional teams are more successful than disjointed ones, whatever the situation. However, L/D cannot force a group to be happy if it is set on not enjoying that that it has paid for.

Sorry to the three individuals mentioned, but not named. I hope they enjoyed as much of the trip as they stayed for, and that whatever the crisis was that drew them away, it was successfully resolved.


The forming–storming–norming–performing model of group development is well documented. As is group dynamics, which is a system of behaviors and psychological processes occurring within a social group. Add the Belbin Team Roles schema and you have the core of understanding a team and the requirements of an expedition team. Part of a L/D role is to facilitate all of this stuff to get the team into the performing mode as quickly and painlessly as possible. Whilst minimising the storming duration and impact. Getting this all right can lead to a team being fairly self sufficient and only really needing the L/D to drive and maintain the truck. That is when the group trully gets the most out of its shared experiance. The L/D's primary role is to get the whole of the group from A to B alive and with as many limbs as they started with. High on the next list is group interaction. With difficult groups this over time gets demoted with the journey and truck filling the gap. So, as oft said the more you put in the more you get out.

There is a further complication with the group development stuff. That is the constituents of the group. It does not reflect society mix, in fact not many groups do unless falsely managed so to do, with all the inherent dangers and issues of that policy. It is not the same as an employment group where a team is selected from a mix of availability, location, who you know, as well as appropriateness for the team goals. There is a degree of randomness provided by the booking process. The person selects the trip and date and is therefore added to the mix of who they will be travelling with. However, that said, there is also a degree of pre selection even in that apparently random process. The trip is undoubtedly expensive. From the 1978 price and date list, London to Joburg, £955. In 2017 terms that is about £5,500 or between £5,000 and £10,000 depending on your measurement criteria. I am not commenting on value for money, or comparing over the duration and distance, just that is a lot of money per person and that will have a natural selection or filtering effect. Furthermore, you are booking an adventure holiday for an extended period of time. It is not a trip to Blackpool during the fortnight factory closure. Wanting to go on this sort of adventure, with the inherent risks and opportunities, together with the unknown and inevitable excitement is another massive pre selection. Not that every one is the same on the trips, far from it, but there are similarities. There are still differences in nationality, gregariousness, compatibility, shyness, self assurance, age, and maturity, to name some. There are naturally fewer of the Belbin Team Roles represented. Blessed be the similarities.

As a L/D you have a mixed group and you make of it what you can. If fact, it is the same with the EMs. Sometimes you never see one another again, other times, lifetime friendships or partnerships are born.

Why have I rambled on so much about people, when there is no real story about the trip to tell? Simple, people are important.

Oh, and for the avoidance of doubt, Encounter Overland did not sit its Leader/Drivers down and teach them about this stuff. Some of it was only just emerging from academia at the time of the trips. This is looking back with the knowledge and understanding that I have today, having bumped into some of these theories during the course of my career. The behaviours exist with or without a name, it is just easier to talk about them when named.

Again, this is now knowledge, not then knowledge, However the experiences, both good and bad, did significantly contribute to the gaining of the now knowledge.

The whole experiance would make for an excelent leadership course!!

Sorry, no photos with this article.



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