A flight crew's approach to crisis management

Those in positions of power do not lose authority by asking questions.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 11 Feb 2021

A team of academics have spent six years looking at how pilot teams communicate during crisis simulations. 

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, the researchers argue that the model of Crew Resource Management - where hierarchy is flattened and all crew members are actively involved in decision making - deployed by airlines in times of crisis should be followed by businesses in similar times of stress. 

They conducted two studies. The first looked at how pilots interacted with each other and the impact that various styles had on the overall performance of the team. 

When it came to dealing with immediate "emergencies", the responses and effectiveness of the crew were the same - based on the recital of memory items and cockpit checklists. However when it came to safely landing the plane the captain’s communication style had a dramatic impact. 

Crews were consistently more effective when co-pilots were directly involved in the decision making process, as opposed to when the captain tried to tackle the issue alone; and came up with much better solutions when open-ended questions were asked as opposed to simple yes/no requests. 

The scholars referred to this as a type of leadership known as humble inquiry, where by treating colleagues as equal decision partners, a person can tap into their expertise and receive more information.

The second study saw the team interview members of the Israeli and German air forces. Over 80 per cent of interviewees highlighted the importance of encouraging subordinates to share ideas openly. 

The "invitation" to speak is especially important because many of the pilots admitted that they will not share information with their commander unless invited to do so - even though they were expected to as part of their training.

Combined, the two studies led the researchers to conclude that open questions are essential for effective communication during high pressure situations. They warn that leaders therefore have to ensure that they encourage employees to speak up and make sure that hierarchy does not prevent team members from voicing concerns. 

They suggest asking colleagues for their opinion before voicing your own is a good way to do this.

Image credit: Richard Baker / Contributor



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