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Managing air safety

A better understanding of organisational stress and the instinctive stress response could help managers protect passengers from threats such as the recent tragic airbus crash in the French Alps.

The terrible airbus crash of flight 4U9525 in the Southern French Alps raises a number of urgent questions that need to be addressed byFlight 4U9525 the airline industry. Foremost of which is how can we be safe in an aircraft when security technology designed to keep the pilot safe from rogue passengers prevents passengers being safe from a rogue pilot?

There is probably no easy technological answer to this poser.

All the security equipment, rules, regulations and protocols in the world are incapable of protecting hapless passengers from the random attack of crazed aircrew set on causing mayhem and murder.

The solution lies less with technology and procedures and more with using modern psychology to create the right organisational culture. A culture that either prevents someone going so badly off the rails in the first place or at least helps the organisation identify problems at an earlier stage.

Co-pilot Andreas Lubitz managed to escape his company’s safety net of psychological screening and monitoring. But in addition, none of his colleagues seemed to notice or perhaps care that he was an obsessive, with a long history of depression and suicidal tendencies. This tragic oversight would not be possible in a normal healthy business environment where long term and functional personal relationships between colleagues create a good team-working atmosphere. Without detailed first hand analysis I cannot be sure, but I believe that Lubitz continued his flying duties, long past the time he should have been signed off, because of the arid emotional wasteland of the usual corporate culture.  

This may need explaining.

The usual corporate culture triggers the human stress response

Modern psychotherapy lists eleven emotional needs, that when satisfied by an organisational culture creates healthy, safe and productive working conditions. Perhaps the most basic of these emotional needs is of course the need for security; but more subtle ones also have a powerful influence on the way we work both as individuals and with each other. In the case of Andreas Lubitz and his corporate employer, I suspect there was a deficit of at least five of these eleven including:

•    Feeling an integral part of a wider community ­ a sense of belonging
•    Having sufficient attention from the significant adults in his life; this would include his line managers and his peer group of colleagues
•    Experiencing a genuine emotional connection with work colleagues
•    Having a necessary degree of status and recognition; by this is meant being valued for who he was not just that he was a qualified pilot
•    Enjoying friendship, peak experiences and fun

The importance of these emotional needs from a management point of view is the key role they play in triggering the stress response when they are not met.

Where we see we are unable to satisfy one or more of our emotional needs our brain can instinctively trigger a stress response in the form of an emotional arousal. This arousal progressively shuts down our rational mind and opens up primal survival impulses. This mechanism does not just impair our ability to function rationally and normally at the time of the immediate threat. If the threat is prolonged over say weeks and months then there is a danger of mental ill health, such as depression or psychosis.  

There is insufficient space here to define these emotional needs more closely but in ‘Reinventing management thinking' I explain why such needs are so important not just to good mental health and wellbeing but also to high individual productivity and group performance.

“I seriously sometimes wonder who is sitting next to me in the cockpit”

Looking at these needs in the specific circumstances of air passenger safety, what is immediately apparent is that any two pilots on any given flight deck are very often relative strangers. This means there is little emotional connection or genuine friendship, as short haul flights, with little or no stay overs, provide little scope for bonding. Rosters naturally focus on pilot availability and flexibility in order to meet the demands of busy flight schedules as efficiently as possible.

As one senior Dutch pilot has said recently in an article for the journal ‘Pilot and Aeroplane’ ­ “I seriously sometimes wonder who is sitting next to me in the cockpit”. This statement speaks volumes about the sterile emotional atmosphere of a large commercial organisation where accounting and scheduling efficiencies have created an operational mix of transient superficial human interactions that in turn obliterate the normal community spirit and emotional nourishment required for healthy psychological functioning.

Management has to realise that there are costs to these current arrangements.

Essentially, this type of corporate atmosphere is a fairly alien environment for our emotional wellbeing; it is little wonder that a young man, lost in depression, has no easy and natural way to pull himself out. Without challenging but supportive group cohesion, built up over time with the glue of genuine personal relationships, consistent team working, and natural social interaction, the individual members of the group are simply not getting their five needs met. This may be fine if they enjoy a balanced and secure home life, but where this is not the case, then the individual is vulnerable to becoming stressed. The more acute the personal problem or domestic situation the more the bureaucratic culture will intensify the situation.     

What is the answer?

Designing a more 'human' system

I can’t claim to be an expert on the air passenger industry, but I can see that operational design needs to take into account the fundamental emotional needs of the individual employees in a job that entails so much responsibility for the lives of so many people. At the moment, presumably the pilots on any given flight are drawn from a large pool of aircrew, thus minimising the chances that they are flying with people they know and trust.  

A better design would draw aircrew, not from a large pool but from small sub-teams with aircrew always flying with someone from their team. I fully appreciate that this arrangement may be difficult to achieve when only two people are required at a time and the flying roster is required to meet highly complex and international scheduling. However any difficulty and cost would be more than compensated by the increased safety and effectiveness of the crews.

Each team could also be the platform for on-going training, formal social interactions and, especially important, regular team building exercises. A ‘buddy system’ could also be operated whereby each employee has a ‘buddy’ that he or she keeps an eye on and supports when needed. As much of the organisational aspects of the team as possible could be ‘self-managed’ to provide further need and scope for interaction between the members and mentoring between seniors and juniors.  As the team members get to know each other, so they will shed their typically polite social masks and be more inclined to express their real feelings and so be more fluent in meaningful interaction with other teammates. The team building exercises in particular need to encourage honest self-disclosure and openness, so often inhibited in corporate culture. In such a climate anyone suffering from strain, stress and mental ill-health will quickly either be helped or at least exposed should they be a threat to passenger safety.

Pilots are highly trained in the technical sense but this in itself does make them mature and balanced enough to take on the awesome responsibility of ferrying passengers. Being given the task to fly a passenger aircraft requires a rite of passage beyond that of just technical expertise and this could be provided by tightly knit teams of intimately connected members flying and working together regularly.

Jeremy Old is author of 'Reinventing management thinking' available on Amazon

Reinventing management thinking

Reinventing management thinkingReinventing management thinking - Using science to liberate the human spirit.

How and why changing organisational design and leadership style transforms work culture and provides real competitive advantage. Buy now from Amazon

Employee engagement WPEmployee engagement programme white paper

Taking a systems approach to improving employee engagement can have an impact out of all proportion to the costs and effort involved. Free download

Save the NHSCuring the NHS

Management induced stress provokes low performance, compassion fatigue and mistakes that puts thousands of patients' lives at risk every day, read the white paper to learn why ...

 

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