Research has shown that 70 per cent of airplane accidents are caused by human error. An even more startling fact is that 50 per cent of these mishaps happen when crews are together for the first time.
In 1977, KLM Flight 4805 collided with a Pan Am 747 on a runaway on the island of Tenerife. More than 580 people were killed when KLM’s Captain Jacob Van Zanten, a highly experienced captain with an impeccable safety record, took off without runway clearance because he was running late.
The flight box recording showed that his co-pilot warned him that they did not have runway clearance but he did not challenge Van Zanten’s decision because he was hesitant to challenge the captain’s authority. This crash has resulted in many airlines putting in place Crew Resource Management (CRM) training to help staff constructively question decisions and actions made on the flight deck.
While most companies have systems in place to check and recheck actions that could lead to accidents, people often find it hard to question their supervisor or manager’s behaviour, not only in regard to safety but also in business decisions and actions that affect customers, staff and the success of the business. Often people who have lower positions; are younger; women; timid or from minority cultures are less likely to speak up.
We like to be liked and it is very hard to tell our co-workers that they are doing something wrong. It’s even harder to tell our supervisory manager that he or she doesn’t have it right.
Here are some ways to help staff gain the confidence to constructively question decisions:
• For important decisions bring in an external objective facilitator who will encourage open communication between all levels of staff.
• Encourage those who aren’t comfortable challenging leadership by praising them when they put up a good argument. I once worked with a very competent but shy lady who would refrain from challenging others when she didn’t agree with them. Over time she was encouraged and praised for contributing ideas and she gained enough confidence to win arguments, some with the CEO.
• Encourage staff to ask questions when managers give them tasks such as: “Can you clarify that for me?” “When do you need this by?” Do you want me to decide on this without checking back with you and if you want this by tomorrow; are you ok for me to delay the other project you have given me?”
• Have your staff or management meetings conducted by somebody other than you. You can also ask a group to explore an issue without you and come up with a final recommendation to present to you.
• We have modified three steps from the CRM airline training process that can be used by staff to question and challenge another person:
1. State a fact that is causing concern: “The project will not be able to meet the November 15th deadline at this rate.”
2. The second step is to ask a question. Use a person’s name to get their attention: “Jim, do you think it would be useful to check that the other alliance partners can make their commitments on this date?”
3. These two first steps may need to be repeated but if they are not successful then a third step is necessary which states the consequences and suggests tangible solutions, such as: “Jim, I am sure that we are not going to meet the November 15th date and the clients need to know this. If you don’t inform them by next Tuesday, we will incur substantial penalties and more time delays.”
While these are not easy conversations, they can help avoid crashes due to poor management decisions, project problems and many every day problems. As our businesses begin to take off again in the Australian economy, it would be useful to teach yourself and your staff, flight corrections skills.
* As published in WA Business News, 25 February 2010