| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne
( January 27, Montreal , Sri Lanka Guardian ) Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers – The Story of Success has a chapter which he has entitled The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes. Gladwell suggests that the ethnicity of the pilots and first officers in the cockpit of an aircraft may have an impact on the safety of flight and cites the famous example (among others) of the crash of the Colombian airliner Avianca flight 052 in January 1990. Here the first officer, in his communications with the air traffic controller had indulged in what was called “mitigated speech” which downplayed or sugar coated critical information that was needed both by the pilot and by the air traffic controller. Gladwell quotes an expert, Earl Weener, a former chief engineer for safety at Boeing who said: “The whole flight deck design is intended to be operated by two people, and that operation works best when you have one person checking the other, or both people willing to participate. Airplanes are very unforgiving if you don’t do things right. And for a long time it’s been clear that if you have two people operating the airplane cooperatively, you will have a safer operation than if you have a single person who is simply there to take over if the pliot is incapacitated”.
Let us analyse what happened to the Avianca flight. The aircraft was dangerously low on fuel and needed immediate landing. The Captain instructed the first officer to tell air traffic control “We are in an emergency”. The First Officer relayed the following message: “That’s right to one-eight-zero on the heading and, ah, we’ll try once again. We are running out of fuel”. This does not, by any means, tell ground control that the aircraft had an emergency. The phrase “running out of fuel” does not convey the grave emergency at all. After a period of silence in the cockpit (which was extremely unusual for an emergency) the aircraft slammed into an estate in Long Island town of Oyster Bay. Seventy three passengers perished.
The first officer mitigated his communication to the air traffic controller because he wanted to be polite, presumably because he held the controller in high esteem. Another aspect to the disaster was that Klotz (the first officer) who was Colombian, expected his pilot to take the decisions Gladwell says: “Klotz sees himself as a subordinate. It’s not his job to solve the crisis. It’s the captain’s. Then there’s the domineering air traffic controllers at Kennedy Airport ordering planes around. Klotz is trying to tell him he’s in trouble. But he is using his own cultural language, speaking as a subordinate would be, to a superior. The controllers though, aren’t Colombian. They are low-power distance New Yorkers. They don’t see any hierarchical gap between themselves and the pilots in the air. To them, mitigated speech from a pilot doesn’t mean the speaker is being appropriately deferential to a superior. It means the pilot doesn’t have a problem”.
The high power distance of Colombians is not dissimilar to that of Asians. We tend to “Sir” our supervisors even if they are just one grade above us. While there is nothing ignoble about being deferential to one’s superiors, such an attitude could effectively preclude teamwork and result in lost opportunity to optimize expertise and provide competence. If “Sir” is regarded as a god like figure, the worth of the subordinate is a foregone conclusion. I work in an environment in the Western world where my clerks and administrative assistants, who are in the general service category, address me by my first name. This makes us work as a team effectively and check ourselves for verification and correctness in our communications with States. Of course, I take the decisions but if I am wrong, they do not hesitate to point it out to me. I do the same with my superiors.
The first measure which should be taken in ensuring team work is to create a positive work environment where each employee feels valued. Listening to one another and honouring the other’s point of view is the most effective way to have a common base of equality in a team. In the Avianca instance the first officer, due to his ethnic and cultural background, did not expect his captain to seek his point of view. There did not exist in the cockpit environment a feeling of respect for every individual.
The second measure is to build mutual trust. Inasmuch as trust is the basic tenet for all relationships, it should not be on a one-way basis, as was in the case of Klotz who trusted his captain to take the decisions, thereby relinquishing his own responsibilities of saving the aircraft and passengers. Trust is about doing what you say you are going to do and being who you say you are. It’s about showing one’s peers and team mates in everything one does that one is reliable, responsible and accountable, and that they can rely on that person for consistency. That was certainly not what Klotz did with his captain.
What the captain of the Avianca flight did not do was to make his first officer feel that he played an important role. The captain did not encourage an environment of cooperation. Rather, he created an environment of competition where Klotz felt he was the inferior and weaker member of crew. The effective leader lets each member of staff know he is a valued part of the team, and that will create a work environment where staff members will respect each other for their unique contributions. This essentially requires the leader to create team spirit by demonstrating that he is open to communication from everyone.
Another aspect of good communication and leadership in the work place is approachability, where the boss demonstrates that he is available to hear any point of view and give credit for success of staff. Above all the boss should always take responsibility. For example, in the Avianca disaster, the captain should have taken over if he was not satisfied that the gravity of the emergency was not being relayed appropriately by the first officer to ground control.
At the end of the day there is no established magic formula for effective communication except for best practices as discussed. However, it is prudent to shed inhibitive cultural nuances if we are to perform at our optimum, particularly in the face of potential disasters. An anonymous writer says of Sri Lanka: “ Man is a cultural animal and culture and man has mutual influence for both. However, the western colonial invasions influenced this balance and in Sri Lanka, we are still seeing the post colonial effect of artificially created cultural segments and their desire to retain power against the will of the common people”. He goes on to say: “ That is why leaders like R Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa who immerge from the common people find enormous opposition from the media and political power base of the comprador society and allied INGO agents. It is a part of continuous struggle due to differences in cultures represented by the common people Vs the privileged sectors of the society”.
Whether this antiquated situation should still hold sway in a globalized society is a matter for debate.