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#95 The Air Traffic Controllers Were Not Managed!

by Steven Cerri on April 18, 2011

Hello everyone,

I think that the “air-traffic-controllers-asleep” issue has some interesting lessons for us in the area of management. Here is what I mean.

One of the workshops I conduct includes a section devoted to the topic of “how to develop your team culture”. That is, what can a manager do to develop and propagate the culture that the manager wants to “install” into the organization?

Now for many managers the culture they think they have to support with their team is often the culture that is “given” to them by the larger organization they work in. So if the culture of the company is a “top-down” culture, many managers believe they have to buy into that environment, and to some extent they do.

On the other hand, if the culture of the organization is very entrepreneurial, then the managers may feel that an entrepreneurial culture is what they should propagate and support, and to some extent they do.

But there is room to maneuver and sometimes there is a lot of room. There is often room for a manager to put his or her personal “cultural and operational stamp” on the team, at least within certain limits given by the larger culture within which they exist.

As I teach in the workshop, it is extremely important for managers to understand all the subtle as well as overt “messages” they send to the team about what the manager expects and supports, as well as what he or she does not expect and will not support. The more a manager understands how to propagate organizational messages, the more freedom the manager will have to build the team he or she is comfortable with and proud of.

Lets return to the air traffic controllers. What was the culture, and more importantly, what were the subtle messages that were constantly sent to the controllers by management? Given that the culture is one in which the controllers have the lives of thousands of people in their hands, what were the unspoken messages sent by management that, I believe, pervaded the organization and led to the current fiasco?

Lets look at three facts as I’ve listed them here. These facts led to “operational messages” that, I believe, colored all other management messages.

Fact #1: At least 27 airports around the country were staffed during the swing shift with one person only.

Fact #2: Apparently, it is common practice that bathrooms for the controllers are located at least one flight of stairs below the control room where the controllers work.

Fact #3: Aircraft traffic during the swing shift is very low in many airports around the country.

Here are the Operational Messages. These are the subtle operational messages I believe these three facts “transmitted” to the controllers.

Subtle Operational Message #1: Unless you are supper human, you are expected to leave the control tower unattended when you go to the bathroom since you are the only controller there. We expect you to do this because management has not given you a colleague to cover for you when you take your break.

Subtle Operational Message #2: By the way, we have put the bathrooms, in the majority of cases, at least one flight of stairs below your control room. So we expect you to leave the monitors unattended not just for your stay at the bathroom, but we understand that you have to climb down and up a flight of stairs so don’t rush, it’s the swing shift and nobody is out there anyway. No big deal. If we really thought it was important for you to say at your monitor we would have, at the very least, placed the bathroom nearer the control room or, better yet, given you a colleague on your shift.

Subtle Operational Message #3: And this is the big message… it is easy to extrapolate that it is ok to leave your monitor unattended for a while whether you are in front of it or not!  The subtle, unspoken message is, “If I can leave my monitor unattended while I go to the bathroom since there are no airplanes to control, I can leave my monitor unattended while I take a nap since there are no airplanes to control.”

So while others are writing about how difficult it is to work swing shift, and I’m sure it is and I’m not volunteering, I think the responsibility for this whole mess rests with air-traffic-control management. More generally, as managers, we must understand that everything we do and don’t do sends a message, overt or subtle, regarding what we will and will not support and expect. More importantly, the ways our messages are “interpreted” are often not the ways we expect. They are “interpreted” by other people and those other people will interpret our messages and expectations in their own, unique ways. As managers, our job is not just to transmit our messages but ensure that they are received and interpreted the way we intend.

You have heard me say over and over, the responsibility for effective communication rests with the sender. Here is a real-world example of why that statement is so true. Air traffic control management sent the message in several powerful and subtle ways that it was ok to not be present.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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