Jan 26, 2017
When something is wrong: a safety concern, a poor procedure, you are asked to do something that just isn’t right, and your gut screams, “NO!”, do you speak up?
The truth is, not often enough. Or soon enough. No one wants to be “that guy” who stops the show, keeping the people or freight from being delivered on time. A big part of the reason for this is no one wants to be uncomfortable. No one wants to be the one who makes others uncomfortable.
Yet we must. When something’s just not right, the weather is too bad, the airplane or helicopter is over gross, out of CG, or has a maintenance issue that hasn’t been resolved, we must — must — speak up. Our very lives, and those who entrust theirs to us, depend on it.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed this behavior several times when experienced pilots didn’t speak up when their training was obviously sub-standard; when questions were raised about whether it was even compliant with FAA regulations. Ever been there? Most of us have. Did you speak up? No, me neither. “Cooperate = Graduate” is the phrase often heard around training organizations.
What do pilots do? Mostly, we press on. We make it work. Pilots are team players, after all. We believe we can “get ‘er dun” in spite of the limitations or the imperfect set of cards we are asked to play. We’re duty-bound, goal-oriented — and blinded by “the mission.” That’s having what I call, a “killer instinct” — only we and our passengers are the ones at risk of getting killed. We might grumble to ourselves, to each other, or to our spouses, “Those freakin’ idiot managers chief pilot/bosses (fill in the blank) don’t want to hear what any pilot has to say when things aren’t right, or it’s going to cost time or money.” And by accepting the challenge that we know we shouldn't — and flying — we change an administrative problem into a pilot problem. Into our problem.
That should never happen.
One doesn’t have to look very deeply in the NTSB accident files to find examples of pilots who didn’t speak up, or didn’t pay attention to the message coming from that most underrated sense, the gut. But we must be inconvenient, at times, even risking our job, our career, or mortgage payment — all of it — to do what’s right, to live. The rest is fixable. But by not speaking up, we risk that which is most precious to us, life itself. And once the lights go out, the lights are out.
I once spoke up because it was the right thing to do. It was uncomfortable. I made the other pilots in the flight department uncomfortable. Management didn’t take the time or wade into their discomfort to fully understand the problem that I was raising. They became even uncomfortable when I called them out for their lack of listening skills — and didn’t back down when they threatened me with my job.
So they did the only thing that they knew in their old-world, patriarchal, military management style that is still — still — so prevalent in the business world — and especially in aviation: These managers cut off the source of their discomfort. I was fired. The saddest part: they missed a huge opportunity to learn, to grow, to become better.
I couldn’t be happier with my decision.
What do you do with your discomfort when it’s inconvenient, your job is on the line, and the stakes are high?