- Letters from our Leaders
You’re All Co-Pilots
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell (who delivered the keynote at the Wharton People Analytics Conference last year when Attuned was a finalist at the event’s startup competition) draws attention to a shocking statistic.
First, a bit of background: commercial flights typically have two pilots in the cockpit, a captain and a first officer.
During a flight, the captain and the first officer divide responsibilities between each other. One of them (either the captain or the first officer) acts as the “pilot flying,” with direct command of the plane’s controls and trajectory. The other acts as the “pilot monitoring,” observing the actions of the pilot flying and carrying out support duties such as communication and checklist reading. And now the statistic: as Gladwell notes, plane crashes are much more likely to occur when the captain is in the pilot flying role. In other words, planes tend to crash when they’re flown by the more experienced, senior pilot.
Why is that the case? Wouldn’t you expect the more experienced pilot to make fewer errors, and therefore flights to be safer when controlled by the captain?
To understand the reason, consider this case.
The pilot flying makes a human error. For example, despite bad weather and low visibility, they decide to land the plane using a visual approach, instead of using the radar.
If the pilot flying is the first officer—the less experienced, junior member of the crew—and the captain, as pilot monitoring, notices the error, they’ll use their authority to correct the decision. For example, they’ll issue a command to the first officer to use the radar instead of a visual approach.
However, if it is the captain making the error, how is the first officer likely to react?
Air traffic investigators have found that in many cases, planes crashed because the first officer was reluctant to correct a mistake made by their boss, the captain.
When it is the captain making a mistake, the first officer is unlikely to issue a command, because all of us are trained from childhood to respect and obey authority. In many cases, the first officers of those crashed flights didn’t even voice their concerns clearly. For example, instead of telling the captain to abandon the visual approach, they issued subtle hints and suggestions, such as saying “the weather radar has helped us a lot.”
Business Failures are System Failures
Flights don’t crash—and businesses don’t fail—because of a single human error. They crash and fail because overly hierarchical cultures render them unable to course correct when mistakes are inevitably made.
Humans create hierarchies because they help speed up decisions. Without hierarchies, we would end up debating every single decision endlessly and never be able to move from A to B. In most cases, it is reasonable to assume that a person with more experience, education, expertise, knowledge or vision—a captain, a CEO or a team leader—will make better decisions than a more junior member of the team.
But no hierarchy correlates 100% with the truth. There will be cases when the captain, the CEO or the team leader is wrong, and the more junior team member is right.
Unfortunately, disagreeing with someone in a position of authority tends to make most of us uncomfortable. It can be much easier to follow our bosses’ orders under the pretext that it is not our place to question their decisions.
However, there are times when that comfort means death—possibly literally if you’re a pilot or a surgeon, and thankfully mostly figuratively when it leads to failure in business.
To avoid such terrible outcomes, airlines have introduced the practice of Crew Resource Management, which explicitly requires crew members with less authority—such as a first officer—to voice their concerns in a direct and assertive way.
For example, instead of saying “the weather radar has helped us a lot,” Crew Resource Management requires a first officer to
- Clearly address the individual: “Hey Captain”
- State their concern directly while owning their emotions about it: “I’m concerned that the situation is unsafe because of low visibility.”
- State the problem as they see it: “There is a mountain range by the runway and a visual approach in bad weather like this might cause us to miscalculate our descent.”
- State a solution: Let’s turn on the radar and abandon the visual approach.
- Obtain agreement or buy-in: “Does that sound good to you, Captain?”
In other words, Crew Resource Management creates a safe environment and a process for junior members to speak up clearly when they disagree with a decision made by their superiors. It also helps supervisors understand that the questioning of their decisions need not be threatening. If a plane is to land safely—or a business is to succeed—those in leadership positions must make it safe for their subordinates to dissent.
Junior leaders often struggle with this. They fear that disagreement is a sign of disrespect and will make them appear as less authoritative. But as their confidence increases, those with real leadership potential learn that, paradoxically, leaders who not only accept, but actively invite disagreement are often more respected and have more authority.
Achieve Full Leadership Potential
- Show vulnerability. Talk often and in vivid, excruciating detail about all the mistakes you’ve made. You’ll not only seem more human to others, but they’ll also be much more inclined to see you as approachable when they have concerns.
- Make upward feedback safe. By incorporating upward feedback in your one-on-ones, you can make it clear to your subordinates that you expect them to give you constructive criticism. Then be sure to thank them for and act upon the feedback.
- Ask people for their views before voicing your own. This will make it safer for your team members to voice dissenting opinions without fear of going against yours.
- Appoint a devil’s advocate. In every decision-making process, you can appoint a person whose role is to challenge the emerging decision or consensus. This can help prevent groupthink and confirmation bias.
- Work actively to uncover blind spots. Before a decision is made, it’s always a good idea to pause and consider if there’s anything you’re not thinking about. Your shiny new idea might be a great win for your profits, but if it puts your suppliers in an impossible position, it’s unlikely to last.
In other words, be humble, be rational, be transparent, and be team-oriented. Even if you’re right 80% of the time, your decision-making will improve if your team feels comfortable challenging you in the other 20% of cases. And that 20% may well mean the difference between success and failure.
Pursue the Art of Disagreement
All of us must also constantly aim to get better at the art of disagreement. Even if it’s safe, challenging one another’s opinions is rarely comfortable.
If you have a concern that you’d like to bring up with your boss, the following can help:
- Do it in person. Disagreements can escalate quickly via phone or email, while people are more likely to seek to resolve their differences in the physical presence of each other.
- Allow the other person to prepare. If you take someone by surprise or catch them at a wrong time, you’re significantly reducing your chances of being heard. Make sure to tell the other person in advance what you’d like to discuss, and ask them to suggest a good time for the discussion.
- Put yourself in their shoes. Think about the constraints the other person is operating under. Even if your request or opinion is reasonable, chances are it won’t be heard if external constraints make it impossible for the other person to do what you suggest. In that case, you’re better off asking about the conditions that would need to be met for your suggestion to become a possibility, and work together to meet those conditions.
- Challenge the opinion, not the person. Respectful disagreement requires that you challenge the other person’s opinions, rather than their position, authority or intelligence. Show that you understand their reasons as well, and seek to clarify their views on your concerns, rather than to sway their minds on the spot.
- Be patient. Circumstances change, and when they do, they might easily bring about a reversal on decisions that previously seemed firmly set in stone. If you cannot change something today, it doesn’t mean that you’ll never be able to change it.
In other words, be humble, be rational, be transparent, and be team-oriented. But never be a wuss.
You’re all co-pilots of this company. Let’s be there for each other to set the course and course-correct together when needed. That’s the only way we can reach our destination and land our plane safely.
And if you don’t think that’s true, please always—always—feel free to challenge me. For a few more days, most of you can even do it in person;)
It’s been wonderful to finally meet you all, fellow co-pilots!
Have a great weekend,