Clear, meaningful and helpful communication and aviation safety are essential partners. Yet many pilots struggle to ask for help when they need it most.
Add job security, a conservative and emotionally sterile environment, and you have the ingredients. The ingredients for what psychologists broadly call “The Four Horsemen.”
The Psychology of Aviation Safety
Dr John Gottman identified “The Four Horsemen” to help couples assess their relationship. And crew pairs have more in common with a committed couple than you might think.
Sure, we have SMS and the rest of it, but some crew pairings are awful. Any professional pilot will tell you they’ve flown with people in a fair bit of pain and how it leaked out. Whether they were inflicting or receiving, it diminished the safety tenets of crew performance.
The Root of The Problem
If you want to use “happiness” or “quality of life” as a benchmark, we are struggling as a society. Whether it is obesity, hypertension or diabetes, it can seem overwhelming. Overworked bodies and minds, fragmented families, and lonely individuals hurt performance. There is no denying this powerful, simple and obvious truth.
Business Aviation Safety: Let’s Do Better
Why not turn this trend around and make the art of navigating and flying safer too? A basic correlation: If a society is a bit sick, then those in safety sensitive jobs are a little sick too.
Imagine catching such problems before they affected actual and not simulated operations.
What if you could predict who would most likely crack up an airplane? Whether a runway overrun, loss of control, or an avoidable controlled flight into terrain:
All accidents (today) are avoidable and are nearly 100% related to human factors.
We need to know people.
Of my mentors, one of them is stand out where operations meet people: Mike Heaton. Mike has dealt with planes, trains and trucks. More importantly, their safety trained people over a career of serial entrepreneurdom.
In 1998, after a tough day managing pilots, I asked Mike – “How do you manage people problems?” The answer? A simple:
“Are there ANY other problems?”
Before you fly your first turboprop or jet aircraft, you’ll be sent to a simulator school. The school will ensure that you fly your King Air B200, Phenom 300 or Cessna Citation CJ 4 to a standard. What isn’t included in that standard is your emotional health.
They get paid to make sure you can fly. But they don’t get paid to look at your bed side manner. The main priority is that you train to the procedures and can meet the requirements of an exam.
“How else can you explain that someone who is a total asshole can still be typed rated in a 737, or worse their own CJ 4?” —Anonymous sim instructor, 2013
Why not build a curriculum that includes careful screening for what we know is trouble? If we did, it would sound a lot like the therapists couch. And the communication examples are easy to recognize:
- Criticism – “Who the hell taught you that? How did you pass your checkride?”
- Defensiveness – “Yes, I heard the controller, but YOU were supposed to remind me.. ” (After being called out for an oversight.)
- Stonewalling – “< silence / no answer / seething under breath >”
- Contempt – “You are an idiot, only an idiot would think that.”
The Four Horsemen have been less obvious points of CRM. (Crew Resource Management) Here’s a more expanded view of each statement:
Criticism: How you relay feedback is everything in any relationship. Dale Carnegie made this most famous in his book, How To Win Friends and Influence People. Here’s the results of decades of human interaction analysis: Criticism never works. Want to be a crappy boss? Beat up your underlings and watch your ship founder.
There is no value in sputtering “Yes, you’re a f–k up…and here’s how to make it better. Let me show you how I’m a superior person and can do it right.”
Play the role of instructor, by leading fallibility by example, not by fomenting resentment. The language you want to avoid using (as teacher) are phrases such as “you always” or “what the F is wrong with you?”
Defensiveness: When under attack, a natural response is to defend oneself. “It’s not me, this *&^%$# autopilot really didn’t accept the input correctly.”
Defensiveness prevents the receiver from listening to what the other is saying.
No autopilot, in the history of flight, has denied, questioned or ignored a human entry. Autopilots also offer an indication to show that they are acknowledging the human’s request.
Stonewalling: Since flight crews are mainly composed of men this is a good one to talk about. We’re pros at shutting down when things aren’t going our way. If a pilot is stonewalling, they are overwhelmed and avoiding any further attack.
The shutting down is a state that is a pure turtle like defense mechanism. The emtional turtle that we are, we retreat into our shell. The cure? Let the stonewaller know that you detect the feelings and that you’ll discuss it later. Acknowledge that it should be discussed, without forcing the issue.
Contempt: The most intense horseman. Contempt implies that pilot A sees very little value in pilot B’s opinions. This then spreads to insights, thoughts or flying ability that B shows.
Rolling eyes or any expression that trivializes the other is indicative of contempt. Contempt is toxic as it implies “I’m on higher ground than you” and you’re ridiculous.
Ever noticed that a certain personality pairs badly with many? That first officers don’t last long with them? Repairing and eliminating harsh exchanges is key to a low risk human factors environment. Why would you let anything else slide?
Consider contempt with a rapidly evolving technological landscape. Then add the increased gulf between basic flying and near complete automation. It is no wonder that human factors are the last frontier of safety.
Alienation impairs aviation safety and the best audits will provide a way to look for the 4 points above.
Aviation safety and CRM (Crew Resource Management), is simple when looked at objectively. Just like the rest of us, pilots have the same emotional vulnerabilities. When either small or large decisions are, look for the horsemen – you won’t regret it.