Everybody knows bad leadership can be costly.

It leads to turnover, workplace stress, and decreased cooperation which costs US businesses billions each year. But can bad leadership kill you?

This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that United Airlines is calling in all 12,000 of its pilots for extra safety training over the next 3 months. This is due to a series of serious safety incidents. None of the incidents led to an accident, but there were several close calls.

One of the key components of the training is increased teamwork on the flight deck. One of the stated goals is to “encourage veteran captains to more-effectively mentor co-pilots, and to help junior aviators be more assertive with senior captains if they spot problems or dangers.” The training is also intended to improve situational awareness and “bridge” the generation gap.

United is focusing on exactly the right place if it wants to improve safety on its planes. More important, they are likely to see numerous other business benefits.

Anyone who has seen my leadership keynote or workshop knows I talk a lot about plane crashes. We listen in on the final conversation between the co-pilot Roger Pettit and captain Larry Wheaton on Air Florida Flight 90, which crashed in the icy Potomac River in 1982 killing 78 people. Listening to that conversation is chilling, not just because you hear the crash, but you see it was completely avoidable. The relationship between the first officer and the captain was the problem.

The reason I play that conversation is to illustrate the life or death consequences that are possible if there is a gap between leaders and those they lead. There are a lot of reasons for these gaps. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, talks about cultural power-distance gaps (Asian and Latin cultures tend to avoid confrontation with power more than people from Western European cultures, for example) and how they contribute to plane crashes and near-miss accidents. United Airlines is focusing mostly on generational differences.

Listening in on the Air Florida flight recording illustrates how these gaps show up in subtle ways, and how important it is for both the leader and follower to take steps to shrink that gap. In that conversation the co-pilot Pettit (who was “on stick” and in charge of the takeoff) suggests to captain Wheaton that he sees a problem. But Pettit is not direct (“I don’t think that’s right”). Captain Wheaton dismisses him and Pettit briefly tries to make his point a second time. But then he backs down (“Aww, maybe it is.”) This fatal decision cost both pilots their lives (along with 76 other souls).

Why wasn’t Pettit more forceful? Why did he back down? Why did Wheaton dismiss Pettit? After all, neither one of these men wanted to die in a plane crash that day. The reason they did was because of the gap between the high powered captain and the lower powered co-pilot. Pettit used what is called “mitigated speech” when he noticed that the pressure readings were out of whack and that the plane might not be going fast enough to take off. When Wheaton dismissed him without trying to learn more Pettit questioned himself. After his second, even less forceful attempt to get his leader’s attention he feebly gave up. Seconds later they were both dead.

The gap between Pettit and Wheaton exists in nearly every power relationship. There are two ways to shrink that gap. The leader in the higher power position must be as approachable as possible. The person in the lower power position then must accept the offer and make the approach. It’s a two-way street. But the leader behavior is typically the key.

As a frequent passenger on airplanes I am glad to see United Airlines take this important step to reduce power-distance gaps in its own cockpits. They are focusing on exactly the right thing: approachability. But I predict they will enjoy substantially more benefits than just improved safety experience. Approachable leaders create many other positive changes in organizations, from reduced turnover to increased enthusiasm and organizational citizenship.

Now it’s your turn. Have you ever seen a safety problem caused by a power distance gap? Do you ever notice people afraid to confront their leader? What steps have you taken to “shrink the gap” and encourage someone to speak up about safety or any other issue? Please comment on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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