On August 5, 1997 a Korean pilot, the recipient of a flight safety award with 8,900 hours of flight time, crashed into the side of Nimitz Hill in Guam, killing 254 people. This was not an isolated event, however. The loss rate for Korean Air in the period between 1988 and 1998 was seventeen times higher that than of United Airlines. The reason? Some say politeness.
The Korean language has different levels of conversational address, depending on the relationship between the addressee and the addresser. The co-pilot would not have dared use a familiar or forceful tone with the captain, even though he realized they should not make a visual approach in the rainy weather.
Seven years prior to the Korean Air crash, a Colombian airliner ran out of gas because the captain was too polite to declare an emergency and demand Air Traffic Control at Kennedy give him priority landing. Apparently neither the captain nor the first officer wanted to assert themselves with the arguably assertive JFK controllers.
The black box recording of the 1982 Air Florida crash outside Washington DC indicated the first officer tried three times to tell the captain that the plane had a dangerous amount of ice on its wings. Instead of assertively issuing a command to the captain, however, the first officer hinted at the problem. The first officer’s last words just before the plane plunged into the Potomac River: “Larry, we’re going down.”
Even though the captain usually has more experience, historically crashes happen more often when the captain flies the leg. When the captain flies, others don’t issue orders. When the first officer flies, the captain doesn’t hesitate to speak up when something looks amiss.
Since these historical crashes, airlines have improved their safety records throughout the world. Cockpit Resource Management now teaches crew members how to address problems, when to speak up, and when to ratchet up. Many other industries should take heed.
Monday Morning Perspective:
“Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” -Sam Walton
“Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked; leadership is defined by results not attributes.” – Peter Drucker
As a senior leader, do you squash debate in favor of politeness or team “harmony”? Or, do you encourage robust debate and discussion that leads to team buy-in? If you do the former, you may crash and burn. If you embrace opposition and put conflicts on the table, you will certainly improve your communication with your team, but you will do something more important: you will take the responsible first step to ensuring the efficacy of your ideas and strategy. If you put the right people on your team, don’t forget why you chose to put them there.ISSN: 2158-1355 © Crystal Dyer 2010. All Rights Reserved.