Does your organisation have cracks in the fuselage?  The aviation industry puts forward the case for communication, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence in the ‘cockpit’ of organisations.
Aviation Safety Regulators have long recognised the importance of organisational factors in the management of aviation safety.

In Australia, airlines are issued with Air Operator Certificates when they meet criteria acceptable to the Regulators. Criteria include the appointment of appropriate people to key management positions, acceptable organisational structures, adequate numbers of qualified and competent employees, credible policies and procedures to manage work practices, and viable financial performance. In addition to threatened legal and administrative action by Regulators, airlines have other incentives to achieve levels of safety acceptable to passengers and their communities. These include retention of market share, minimisation of insurance premiums and conditions, and reduction in tort law and action by unions. All of these factors are shared by most organisations, both private and public, as are the related pressures.

Against a background of perceived erosion of compensation, rewards and career opportunities, along with increased threats to security, safety and error management, pilots need to maintain heightened situational awareness of their own feelings, and the ability to control them so as not to negatively impact on flight [or organisational] performance. These needs are also experienced by most employees, in most organisations.

Two pilots were recently stood down by their senior airline management and cabin crew offered counselling after a mid-air incident, during which the first officer was locked out of the cockpit for two minutes. The captain and first officer had apparently fallen out over a take-off delay. According to the media report, there was tension between the pilots after a 13-minute delay to the flight’s department when the first officer was required to take part in a random drug and alcohol test. The delay in departure apparently frustrated the captain who prides himself on operational efficiency.  Nonetheless, an aviation expert stated that there was no excuse for the captain to not immediately respond to three requests to open the cockpit door over the two-minute period. This period could have continued, had the first officer not used an alternative route to gain access to the cockpit. In the aviation expert’s words, “…two minutes is an eternity” in relation to performance in the cockpit.

A period of seven to twelve months is also an ‘eternity’ for most organisations when there is perceived non-communication and conflict between employees.  In their recent analysis of a random sample of 70 workplace investigation reports, iHR Australia looked into the causes of complaints and potential ‘cures’ for workplace investigations. iHR found the majority of complaints that led to investigations concerned behaviour that spanned a period of seven to twelve months.  Moreover, anecdotal evidence from iHR investigators who were required to review internal investigations, suggests that better communication with parties could improve the ‘success’ of an investigation and increase the perception among complainants and respondents that a resolution has been reached.

The survey also found that training strategies for the transfer of communication and conflict resolution skills, and development of emotional intelligence, were needed to minimise the risk of grievances on the ground (as well as in the air).  The airline industry used to call this training, ‘Cockpit Management Training’, and later extended the term to ‘Crew Resource Management Training’. The two pilots received further training during their suspension from work duties; topics that may have helped, as they do most people in organisations, include communication, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence.

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