Bad Pilots, Bad Bosses, Bad Communication & Crashing Planes

I used to travel frequently in a previous life.

On one particular occasion, I don’t remember where I was going to or coming from, we were on approach for arrival. To avoid the wrath of the flight attendants, my seat was in the upright position with all loose items neatly stored beneath the seat in front of me. When I heard the pilot come on the speakers, I paused the music pumping through my headphones to hear the following: “As we land, you may see some smoke and flames coming from underneath the plane. Don’t panic. There’s a minor issue and fire trucks are standing by if needed.”

Uh…What? Seriously? Don’t panic? Does this guy think he’s Douglas Adams?

He did seem calm, though. Too calm. It was the kind of calm where you are trying to make sure people don’t go ape-shit ballistic from fear. But, what could I do? Nothing. Fortunately for my wife, I was insured. She could pay off the house and find someone more pleasant to spend the rest of her days with. She’d make out okay. So, I took Captain Adams’ advice not to panic. I didn’t have a towel, so I just pushed play and settled into whatever music I was listening to at the time and whatever future or lack thereof was to come. So long and thanks for all the fish.

(If talk of panic, towels, fish and Douglas Adams make absolutely no sense to you, go read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy and thank me later. Your brain will jump 42 points on the wisdom meter.)

You’ve probably guessed by now that I’m not dead. As it turned out the pilot was calm because it really wasn’t a big issue. Something with the brakes. Don’t remember and don’t care, because I’m alive and in one piece.

Let’s say, though, that we went down good, hard and in flames, the unfortunate victims of crappy odds in a twisted lottery. What do you think the likely cause of the accident would have been? Specifically, do you think the odds are more likely that the plane would go down as the result of a mechanical malfunction, or human error?   

If you guessed human error, bingo, and good job! The National Transportation Board determined that three out of four crashes are due to poor pilot leadership and malfunctioning teamwork and communication. In his book, Personality at Work, Rob Warren details how captains often dictate orders while their First Officers are prone to make suggestions and try to influence the situation without the use of direct communication. The captains don’t ask questions and the subordinates lack the necessary assertiveness to challenge them when they see approaching problems.

Warren goes on to recount an Alaskan Airlines flight that resulted in numerous injuries and one death. The First Officer had lightly addressed his concerns in the time leading up to the accident, but with little assertiveness. The captain dismissed him, continuing on with what proved to be irresponsible behavior. Should the First Officer have been more assertive? Certainly. But, people react to their environment, which is significantly influenced by the leader – in this case, the Captain.

There’s just too much risk to being the messenger.  

If you are a leader, and find yourself continually frustrated, saying things like, “why didn’t they tell me about that,” or “why do I have to make all the decisions,” then there is a good chance that you are the cause of the communication breakdown. Your directive, authoritarian approach is stifling the ability of your people to communicate openly. There is communication, to be sure. But, it’s taking place behind your back. Along with the damper you’re placing on communication, you’re also smothering collaboration and innovation.

Strength comes from allowing people to vocalize dissent, not by eliminating it. Because, if you don’t, you will be the last one to know when your respective version of a plane is about to crash.

What do you do to encourage open communication on your team? Write your response in the comment section.

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Matt Nelson

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