Best Practices for Trip Leaders

This chapter has been adapted from guidance compiled by Christopher Lay at the Ken Norris Center for Natural History (UCSC) and the NOLS Leadership Educator Notebook, and is divided into two important sections: Risk Assessment and Effective Communication. Trip leaders of all experience levels can benefit from these strategies to set the tone for a safe trip and manage situations that arise. It’s impossible to prepare for all scenarios that may unfold when working in uncontrolled environments, but consideration of both objective and subjective factors are critical to manage incidents in the field.

Risk Assessment

Evaluating the “Accident Potential”

Always ask yourself: If we get into an accident right here, could I justify my actions and decision-making when I describe this back home? Two forces overlap when most accidents occur:

  • Objective factors: These are environmental hazards presented by the natural world, such as weather, darkness, falling rocks, moving water, lightning, snow, exposure, avalanche, cold, hot, or deep water, etc.
  • Subjective factors: These are human characteristics that often play a role when accidents occur. They include complacency, overconfidence, distraction, differing perception of risk, expectations and peer pressure, fatigue, stress, haste and lack of competence.

Developing Conservative Judgment

Judgment is the logical reasoning we use to help us decide what to do in a new situation. It’s based on our past experience and personal reflection that leads to an insight or changed behavior that you carry forward with you. A few important points to remember about developing conservative judgment:

  • Experience alone does not develop conservative judgment! Plenty of people take the same extreme risks over and over again. Reflection from one’s experience that leads to a modified future action is just as important as experience.
  • We are going to make mistakes – the key is to learn from them
  • There are better and worse times to make mistakes – you don’t want to push your limits when you’re leading a group. Do this on your own time.
  • It’s good for beginners to have simple clear “unbreakable” rules, such as: never climb a peak after noon in the mountains (because of lightning strike potential). Over time, your judgment will help you develop more nuanced rules.
  • Often you must follow policies set forth by your organization that may conflict with what your judgment tells you to do. Follow your protocols.
  • Sometimes you don’t have the experience to use good judgment – it is okay to stop and not do something.
  • Supervisors don’t typically get upset if you’re “too safe”, but people will get upset (and potentially hurt!) if you get in over your head.

Use the Equation: Risk = Likelihood*Consequences of an Accident Occurring

Likelihood of an Accident
Consequences of an Accident Occurring Low High
Low GO!
This is an
acceptable risk!
Can you mitigate this before proceeding? Is your group developing solid skills, good safe decision-making and self-awareness?
High STOP?
Lean towards avoiding these, but can you mitigate situation to lessen the consequences? If so, this could turn to a go.
Avoid these

This graphic depicts the Go/No Go concept integrated into our field safety plans. Some conditions may be clear “No Go” situations, e.g. lightning, high waves, extreme heat, washed out roads, etc., but many challenging field situations will fall into the “amber” boxes.

Facilitating Safe Group Decision-Making

As a field leader, you have to accurately assess risks, mitigate hazards and carry out safe actions. You also have to facilitate your group making safe decisions together. This can be challenging and requires both competency in risk analysis as well as solid communication and leadership skills. With this in mind, consider the following four ways that groups make decisions:

  • Directive: The leader decides and informs the group.
  • Consultative: The leader decides after consultation with the group. This can happen two different ways: the leader might first solicit input from the group and then decide or the leader might tentatively decide and get input and reaction from the group before making the final decision.
  • Group decides: All group members (including the leader) contribute equally to the decision-making process. This could happen through a vote or through consensus.
  • Delegation: Leader delegates the decision-making to the group after defining the appropriate boundaries and conditions. Before delegating, the leader must feel comfortable with any decision made.

Many experienced leaders employ all of these decision-making styles depending on the situation and the expertise of their groups. By doing so, leaders help maintain a safe learning environment while at the same time helping groups take ownership and responsibility for their collective experience.

Case studies:
Using the Green-Amber-Red (GAR) risk model for a UC Davis research expedition on the Colorado River (by James Fitzgerald, Bodega Marine Lab)
NSF Workshop Report: Arctic Field Safety Risk Management

Effective Communication

Set the tone for a safe learning environment

The success and overall safety of a team is more associated with the quality of its leadership, teamwork and communication than it is with its overall skill level. Teams don’t magically happen. They are consciously built by the actions of both leaders and participants. Before any risky situations arise, it’s important to develop and practice good teamwork and communication within your teacher/leader team and student/research group.

As a leader/teacher, you have enormous influence over how well (and how safely) your team will perform. Below are several key communication actions you can employ to help you more effectively steer your group in a safe positive direction.

Establish and maintain reasonable goals, roles, expectations/behavioral norms

As a leader of your group, you have the most influence over creating a culture of safety within your group. By far, the most leverage you have is at the beginning of your class/trip. All of your group’s future endeavors are made easier or more challenging by the effectiveness of these first interactions. Two important meetings should occur at this early stage:

  • Meet with your leader/teaching team prior to the beginning of your class/trip to discuss your leadership roles as well as personal and course objectives.
  • Facilitate an orientation pre-trip meeting with your whole group as early as possible to establish clear goals, roles, expectations and behavioral norms.

The following is a suggested format you could use for a discussion about creating a safe learning environment for undergraduates participating in a multi-day field class. This discussion should happen as early on in the course as possible. This can easily be modified or shortened for less-involved field experiences or different participants. Regardless, this discussion is one of the key leverage points that leaders have over the general trajectory that their group will follow during their time together. Don’t skip it.

  • Introduction: Living and studying outside will pose significant challenges for all of us. A big part of this challenge is how we work together as a group - how we communicate, cooperate, problem-solve and support one another. This course is different (and much more) than a regular academic experience - we learn together but we also live together and can’t get away from each other when we’re in the field. We have the responsibility both before and during the course to co-create a safe, positive learning environment. The rewards of building and maintaining a safe, supportive community are huge. Your own learning goals will be magnified when we actively work to support each other.
  • Explicitly State Leader Expectations: With this in mind, it is important to specify and build consensus around what it takes to maintain a safe positive learning environment. Let’s spend time now as a group discussing this and getting everyone’s input. For now, consider the following general aspects that we as the leaders of this course have found useful in creating a safe positive learning environment:
    • You can expect us (your leaders) to instruct this course. But you can also expect us to respect you for who you are, to support you both physically and emotionally, to give and receive constructive feedback, and ultimately to provide a safe learning environment for you and the group as a whole.
    • We will expect all of you:
      • to respect one another
      • to practice proactive self-care; check in with us about medical concerns and other concerns you may have
      • to follow our lead & follow the rules
      • to participate fully (be on time, get out of bed, speak up in discussions, take part in activities)
      • to teach and learn from one another (take pride in what you bring to the group and support others in what they bring too)
      • to be open minded and ready to learn (all the time, even when you’re tired, when you’re in the van)
      • to take initiative to try new things (peer leadership)
      • to work together as a team (you don’t have to like everyone, but you do have to work together effectively. Sometime this means taking a leadership role, sometimes it means supporting one of your peers who takes a leadership role.)
      • to be willing to sacrifice some personal goals for the sake of the group (you may need to speed up/slow down, turn around on a hike, speak up more, listen more, modify your level of sarcasm/joking to fit with the norms of the group, etc.)
      • to give and receive constructive feedback
      • to provide a safe learning environment for everyone
      • to put your whole self in to the experience
  • Get input from your group: Take some time to discuss in smaller groups anything else the student group thinks is important to maintaining a safe learning environment. Then discuss as a whole group, letting as many participants share what they talked about. Acknowledge everyone for listening and sharing.
  • Explicitly go over the important rules. Here are some common rules/issues that you might consider specifically addressing:
    • Personal physical safety - no hiking alone, no rock climbing, swimming guidelines, etc. You must wear your seatbelt in the van whenever we’re driving. You likely don’t have time to discuss all of these right at the beginning, but introducing them lets your group know that you think they’re important. You can say that you will come to these in more detail once out in the field.
    • Emotional safety
      • Sexual harassment: Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. The university tolerates zero harassment and as employees, we are mandated reporters.
      • Avoid jokes, sarcasm or insulting remarks: about individuals or groups of people, whether or not they are represented on this course.
      • Aggression: Avoid either verbal threats or motion to harm others in the present or future.
      • Language: Keep the course relatively free of bad language.
    • Alcohol and other drugs: This can clearly be a difficult “rule” to establish. Consider bringing up four things with the students: safety, legality, learning and group cohesion.
      • Safety: Clearly drugs and alcohol can compromise safety, which is especially concerning in remote field contexts.
      • Legality: Most drugs are illegal and using alcohol or marijuana if you’re under 21 is illegal. Getting caught condoning illegal activities in a university-sponsored field class could cost any leader their job as well as jeopardize the future of the course. UC has a clear policy prohibiting use of marijuana on UC property and during UC-sponsored activities.
      • Learning: Drugs and alcohol can interfere with your ability to learn the material we cover in this course.
      • Group cohesion: The use of drugs and alcohol can often undermine community building within a group. Often, a smaller subset of a group is most comfortable drinking (or perhaps sneaking off and using drugs) and this leads to cliques and dis-unity.
      • After going over these concerns, you might consider two different rules to establish and maintain:
        • No use of drugs or alcohol.
        • Moderate consumption of alcohol only by those of age and only “outside of class time”.
      • Consequences: What if they break the rules? Consider saying something like this: “I am ultimately responsible for maintaining a safe learning environment for everyone out here. If your actions aren’t supporting that ultimate goal, I will request that you change your behavior. I can also separate you from this course.”
      • Final advice: If you set and maintain clear expectations, constantly build rapport and connection with your students, facilitate awesome experiences (without drugs/alcohol), and set a good example yourself, you won’t have trouble with this issue.
    • Smoking: Follow the law/rules (UC has a smoke/tobacco-free policy). In a place where smoking is permissible, smoke outside away from others and throw your butts away (they are not biodegradable). Consider quitting now.
    • Exclusive relationships (including romantic ones): You might say “Get out of your bubble and be inclusive of everyone.” It takes an explicit, deliberate action to be inclusive of everyone - make it a goal to sit some place different tomorrow and strike up a conversation with someone else. The whole experience will be much more meaningful if we come together as a whole group.
    • Cell phones: “Either put your cell phone in airplane mode or turn it off completely during the day. If there are some apps you’re using for class, that’s fine. If you want to make brief phone calls outside of our class time (like after dinner), that’s fine. What we want to avoid is checking out of the present moment and not interacting with the people who are physically present.”
    • Music: “No speakers in the field; music in the van is at the driver’s discretion. Beware listening too much to music using earbuds: it can lead to checking out too much from the group.”
  • Removing someone from the course: You might want to give an example of the rare occurrence where someone might separate from the course. Consider saying:
    • If something inappropriate comes up, we will first and foremost talk with that person or people involved.
    • Our goal would be to build understanding, provide additional support and clarification to everyone involved.
    • However, if the inappropriate behavior continues, we could decide to separate a person from the course.
  • Finally, explicitly ask for everyone to follow these guidelines in order to create a safe learning environment: You might say, “Does all this sound good? Can I get a yes or a nod from everyone? If any of this concerns you, please feel free to come to talk with one or all of us after this meeting.”

Brief your team often

The practice of active listening can help you build a healthy group learning community but also can significantly reduce the likelihood of accidents. When you are actively listening to someone, you are supporting people to think out loud. This builds trust, group intelligence, and greater awareness of a situation or issue. It also helps leaders (and their groups) make safer decisions.

Active listening requires that you:

  • be present with your speaker
  • do more listening than speaking
  • make eye contact and use positive body language
  • focus on understanding what someone is saying, not on mentally preparing a response
  • avoid interrupting, debating, and quick, preconceived responses

The two cornerstone skills of active listening are Paraphrasing and Drawing People Out:

When you paraphrase someone, you say back to the speaker what you think the speaker said in your own words. This is the most straightforward way to demonstrate to a speaker that his or her thoughts were heard and understood. Though simple, paraphrasing is powerful! When done well, it is non-judgmental and enables people to feel that their ideas are respected.

Drawing People Out
When drawing someone out, ask open-ended non-directive questions. This helps the speaker clarify and refine their thoughts. Setting a tone that invites good listening reduces the probability of accidents. A good leader sets a tone in which participants and co-leaders feel they can speak up, question and share observations without fear of reprisal. Do this by frequently checking in with your instructor team and student group. Strive to follow these guidelines:

  • Give adequate time for discussions to avoid giving the impression that your group has nothing to contribute.
  • Make eye contact.
  • Listen to your team member’s responses without interrupting or “talking over” them.
  • Ask: “Are you getting enough direction from me about what you need to be doing?”
  • Be aware giving the impression that you’re really not looking for input.
  • Instead of saying, “Okay - you’ve all done this before. Ready to go?,” ask “Hey is anyone not ready?”
  • Be aware that silence can be mistaken for agreement. Take the time and create the space for everyone to express their concerns.

Resolving conflict

The potential for conflict is natural among people and is an inherent part of any group’s development into a safe, high functioning team. Rather than avoid conflict, effective teams manage conflict productively. While conflicts are okay, unresolved conflicts are not. They impede communication and cooperation, and they can lead to incidents. Conflict often arises when expectations, roles and responsibilities are unclear. Participants may be missing information or lack a sense of the big picture. It’s the leader’s job to clarify this for your group. When conflict arises, you should see it as a sign that your team may be unraveling. As a leader, you may need to step in, acknowledge the issue and set aside time to work through the conflict. Do this by listening to the different perspectives and opinions, restating or revising roles & expectations and committing to moving forward productively.

Some strategies to consider:

  • Approach the student, co-instructor or team member with respect (think connection before correction).
  • “I have been noticing.... and I was hoping to talk to you about it.”
  • “I wanted to bring ‘this’ up to make sure you are getting what you need to feel good about this class” or....that you, the other students, and the purpose of this course are all supported.”
  • Clarify your expectations and/or goals for the course. If they are not meeting your expectations or hindering your goals, specify which one(s) they aren’t meeting.
  • Suggest ways they could meet expectations the next time this situation arises. Don’t be afraid to say: “We need everyone to follow these expectations in order to create a safe learning environment for everyone.”
  • Educate your students about the ramifications of their actions, etc.
  • Engage in collaborative problem solving with your student(s).
  • Make a plan for checking in again.

Addressing student/participant behavior in the field

Often, one of the most difficult challenges of a field instructor/leader is to address group dynamics and individual behavior that can undermine a positive learning environment for everyone. These challenges may manifest as homesickness/disengagement, alcohol or drug use, poor performance, sexist or racist behavior, or various behaviors that prevent inclusion of everyone. Addressing these issues is a continual process and involves all of the following:

  • Setting the tone for a safe positive learning environment
  • Using inclusive language: (e.g., use “family” instead of “parents”, give students the opportunity to share their preferred gender pronouns when they first introduce themselves to the group)
  • Building rapport: Developing positive professional relationships with all students/participants. Give regular positive and constructive feedback, spend time (structured and unstructured) with them, play games, have conversations, ask them questions, set and reinforce boundaries and learn from your students. Make the effort to individually check-in with each of your students/participants at some point during your course/project. Ask them how they’re doing, ask them to give you feedback, and then listen.

Should challenges arise with a student, consider the following options:

  • Examine the student’s behavior and their individual experience while revisiting the structure and boundaries you set for a safe, positive learning environment, your role as an instructor and the culture created by your group.
  • Are their social dynamics at play in your group that isolate, intimidate, or threaten this student?
  • What needs of this student are not being met? What could you do to meet them?
  • Is this student getting from his/her disruptive behavior? Is there any other way this student could meet their needs in a more productive way?
  • Are the boundaries you have created thwarting this student’s ability to feel capable, connected, and that their presence matters?
  • Make structural changes (such as giving more time for lunch, or taking the afternoon off every once in awhile) that you think might alleviate some of the stress on this student.
  • Give verbal feedback and coaching first before written documentation.
  • Keep a written behavior log of observations about the student’s behavior.
  • Be accurate - stick to observations and quotes; avoid speculation, interpretation, and evaluation.
  • Be specific, clear, and organized. Use dates, times of day, names, etc.
  • Use direct quotes from the student and from their peers - “His peers observed him saying ......”
  • Be brief and avoid redundancy.

If a behavioral issue does not resolve itself after 1-2 days of trying all of the above, consider creating a Student Performance Agreement (SPA), a structured way to:

  • Document behaviors that need to change
  • Clarify behavioral expectations
  • Outline consequences if change doesn’t occur

An effective SPA should target behavior that is specific, observable and changeable. It needs to include a timeline for change and appropriate consequences. See the Appendix for an example of a SPA used at UCSC. Your Dean of Student Conduct (or comparable leadership on your campus) can also help with deciding if/when to use SPAs and how to write them.

Case Study

  • Establishing a code of conduct at UC Irvine-managed field stations to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and assault
  • Surveys indicate that sexual harassment or assault is a significant risk during field work, especially for women and students (Clancy et al 2014National Academies 2018). To address this issue, resources were posted on the department website and the following posters were developed. They have served as a model for the broader UC Natural Reserve System. Shared by Kathleen Treseder, Professor UC Irvine Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.