rocket science

I recently read James R. Hansen’s terrific biography of Neil Armstrong, First Man. It was fascinating on many levels, but one of the most intriguing things for someone who studies team dynamics is that the crew of Apollo 11 were not particularly friendly with each other.

If you listen to people like us, you’d think we need to be best friends with our teammates and employees in order to get work done. It sounds like if we aren’t bonded like blood brothers, the team will fall apart. But what if we told you that isn’t necessarily true?

Amiable Strangers

The Apollo 11 crew of Armstrong, Edwin ”Buzz” Aldrin, and Michael Collins was put together out of a small pool of available astronauts based on a number of factors. But out of a pool of fewer than 6 dozen men, many of whom had worked, trained and lived together for years, these three actually knew less about each other than most. In the book, the term was “amiable strangers.” Why would NASA trust the most critical mission in human exploration to a team they assembled without taking the team dynamic into account?

To be fair, personalities were accounted for, but they weren’t the primary focus. The mission was what was important. Given the different roles (pilot, commander, scientist, representing the space program to the world) involved in the undertaking, identifying the skills needed to accomplish this huge task came first. The notion that these men would need to live in a metal cage smaller than a minivan for 8 days without coming to blows was way down the list of considerations.

How do different people work together effectively?

As Hansen reveals, and none of the astronauts will deny, they were very different people. They had different—sometimes conflicting—personal motivators and personality styles. In particular the two men who would spend the most time together, Aldrin and Armstrong, could not have been less alike. Neil Armstrong was quiet and very private, never speaking unless it was important and loath to discuss even the smallest personal details. Aldrin, on the other hand, was something of a chatterbox.

Imagine you are in the cube farm and the person next to you never stops talking and trying to involve you in discussions when you’re trying to get work done. (To be fair, imagine you’re trying to strike up a conversation and kill the boredom and the person next to you refuses to engage in conversation or pleasantries, and refuses all invitations to socialize.) Now imagine you are locked in the lunch room together for 8 days and nights with your lives depending on getting that project finished and the hopes of the entire human race on your shoulders.  Most of us can’t get through a conference call with people who annoy us without rolling our eyes and praying for the end. How did these men do it?

By Respecting the Mission and Each Other

There were two components that allowed the team to succeed despite their differences. The first was a laser focus on the mission at hand. All concerned understood the importance of what they were doing. As individuals, as representatives of the Space Program, and as human beings, the importance of what they were doing overrode other considerations.

Secondly, these men respected each other’s ability to do the job. They might not have chosen to socialize together if given a choice. They might prefer some other teammate, but when it came down to it they knew their teammates had excelled in their training and demonstrated a lifetime of competent work so they were literally willing to put their lives in each other’s hands.

If you read the book, you come away with the conclusion that perhaps the most impressive thing about the entire mission was that Neil Armstrong didn’t actually smack the chatterbox Aldrin at some point and tell him to stop talking. Or Michael Collins didn’t feel the need to tell Armstrong to lighten up. I’m sure they felt like it, but they put their differences aside, focused on the task at hand, and trusted that (as annoying as they were to each other) they were in very capable hands.

This is true on your team, too.

On remote teams, it’s easy to let the distance become a way to gloss over differences or fail to address challenges of communication and work styles. Trust is built when  people agree on the purpose, have evidence of competence, and believe everyone is motivated to help the team achieve. Whether you’re best buddies is a secondary issue.

Yes, it’s better when everyone gets along. Workstyle assessments like DISC can help identify potential sources of conflict, which helps.

Sometimes there will be friction, but it doesn’t mean you can’t still succeed as a team and achieve their goals. It isn’t rocket science.



Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership.

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