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Crew Resource Management and United Flight 173

by | Apr 25, 2017 | approachable leadership

Don’t Mess With Mother Nature

Last week I continued my hike of the Ozark Highlands Trail. It was a beautiful day for a hike and my good friend Mike and I hit the trail planning on a nice 9-miler. At that point we’d be met by my wife and daughter on a forest road near a creek crossing. Or at least that was the plan.

At about mile 7 Mike and I got to see a massive display of why you don’t mess with Mother Nature. We didn’t realize that an F-1 tornado had ripped through this section of the Ozark National Forest just a week before our hike. It threw massive trees (some of the root balls were taller than me) across the trail. Some were pulled up from the roots while others were snapped like toothpicks 40 feet above our heads.

Needless to say we hadn’t planned on having to leave the trail every few hundred yards over what we thought would be our last 2 miles. Our pace slowed to a crawl. When we finally crossed Greasy Creek and arrived at the rendezvous point we realized our hike wouldn’t end there. Trees also blocked forest road access to this remote part of the forest. Our 9-miler just turned into a 15-miler.

While we weren’t aware of the mayhem on the trail, Mike and I quickly grabbed the map and talked through our plan. He was going to be out of water soon but I always travel with a water filter so when we ran out of water we were able to refill. I was slowing down so we agreed he’d hike ahead the last two miles. We finally made it to Chancel Campground as the sun started to set, tired but with a great story to tell.

Things could have been a LOT worse. I’ve had a few run-ins with rattlesnakes on this trail and even though we spent a lot of time off the beaten path we didn’t see any of those guys. More important, we weren’t hiking a week earlier during a tornado!

What’s Your Worst Case Scenario?

In order to be safe on the trail you have to think about your worst case scenario. But what if something went wrong at your workplace? What’s the worst that could happen? You lose a lucrative customer? Your brand gets a black mark? You have to fire a beloved employee? Or maybe someone dies?

Worst case scenarios are different for all of us. But regardless, no one wants to find themselves there. If you find yourself in a bad situation – like Mike and I did in the woods – good communication is critical. Poor communication can turn a bad situation into a crisis.

When things go bad at work our teams look to us for answers. As leaders we often feel it is our duty to solve the problem. Unfortunately we often create the communication problems that make a bad situation a worst case. Many times we get so fixated on solving the problem in front of us that we ignore crucial information from our teams. Do that and situations spiral out of control.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this leadership paradox lately. Not just because of the hike, but because I ran across another plane crash that could have easily been solved if the captain had been a more approachable leader.

United Flight 173

In 1978. United Flight 173 was headed to Portland International Airport when the crew discovered a landing gear problem. During the next hour, the captain focused entirely on troubleshooting the landing gear. Meanwhile, he ignored repeated warnings from his crew members that fuel levels were dwindling. (See a reenactment in this short Youtube video).

It wasn’t until the engines started going out that the captain started listening to his crew and acknowledged their dire situation. It was too late. United Flight 173 was forced to land in a Portland neighborhood.

Ten people died.

The NTSB investigator who inspected the crash noted several similarities between United Flight 173 and the Tenerife Airport Disaster that killed 583 people in 1977. Also, the Eastern Airlines Flight 401 that killed 101 people in 1972.

Out of these disasters, crew resource management (also known as cockpit resources management) was born.

What is Crew Resource Management?

“CRM can be defined as a management system which makes optimum use of all available resources—equipment, procedures and people—to promote safety and enhance the efficiency of operations…The primary goal of CRM is enhanced situational awareness, self awareness, leadership, assertiveness, decision making, flexibility, adaptability, event and mission analysis, and communication. Specifically, CRM aims to foster a climate or culture where authority may be respectfully questioned.”

I want to point out one particular phrase here that I think is very important.

“CRM aims to foster a climate or culture where authority may be respectfully questioned.”

This is the primary purpose behind Crew Resource Management training. It’s also foundational to Approachable Leadership.

Power Distance is a Huge Problem

It’s hard for people to speak honestly with their boss. It just is. And the more hierarchical the structure and culture of your facility, the more difficult this becomes. Especially when there is disagreement.

Rarely will you find an employee who feels so comfortable and secure with her relationship with you and her value in the organization that she will openly disagree with you. If you do have someone like that on your team you’ve probably done a lot to create that relationship. You have made her feel so valuable that she can speak freely. You have invested in a real relationship so that the whole dynamic isn’t founded on “this guy can fire me.”

Maybe you like the power dynamic. The day is a lot less stressful if everyone just agrees with you. Treats you with respect. I get it. You’ve probably earned it. But when the chips are down I guarantee you’ll like staying out of the danger zone even better. And if your team doesn’t feel safe challenging you when things are going smooth they won’t do it when it really counts. That’s the fast lane to a worst case scenario.

But having an employee who isn’t afraid to speak up is just the first piece of the puzzle. You have to be ready and willing to listen.

A Tip to Bridge the Gap

One of the things I try to do is to ask what people think before I say what I think. This is a challenge for me and might be for you too. Before I blurt out my answer I try to catch myself and say, “You know, I can see a couple of ways to handle this, but I’m not sure. What do you think?”

This doesn’t just invite my team to speak up. It shows vulnerability on my end. (I definitely don’t have all the answers.) And it builds confidence on their end. Let’s be honest. The less you speak, the more likely your team will speak up. I want a team that speaks up. Even if it means telling me things I don’t always want to hear.

When was the last time bad communication got you in a jam? How much of that was your employee feeling uncertain, but afraid to speak up? Not sure? Now there’s a place to start.