With up to 200,000 commercial flights a day, aviation must do many things right. From airport operations and internet booking systems to something much more valuable: superb performance in the cockpit of every single plane, every single flight.
How do they keep talent engaged so they can fly impeccably? What can we learn from aviation that applies to businesses? Here are three valuable practices.
1. Provide the right response to errors.
One of the great killers of engagement in organizations is what happens when there’s an error. Of course, no one wants an incident in aviation. And it’s vital to treat every single one very seriously. But what’s surprising is that the discussions do not involve questions that suggest a personal attack or blame, like, “Who did it?” and “Whose fault is it?”
Instead, aviation professionals take a fact-based, neutral, non-rushed approach. The main question asked is: “What was it in the system that allowed this to happen?” Yes, someone may have made a mistake. But is that the result of improper or insufficient training? Or poorly designed procedures? Or some equipment that did not work as expected in that context?
The goal is for the organization to keep talent engaged by encouraging them to learn and improve. To make sure that everyone becomes better because of that incident. That people involved are more committed to doing their best, rather than discouraged or made angry. Just Culture is what this is called in aviation.
Companies are sometimes very far from this approach and there’s a lot that can be done to improve things. While pointing to “the guilty” and making sure they get reprimanded might seem like some sort of relief for the stress they’ve caused us, we all know it’s not the right path to take.
2. Ensure real-time feedback.
Pilots always know where they stand in terms of performance in their roles. This keeps them alert and motivated to learn and to perform at their best.
Twice a year they spend time in flight simulators. The first four hours of the visit are to practice situations they might face in reality: engine failure, hydraulics failure, emergency landing, smoke in the cabin, and so on. The second four hours are an examination. An experienced captain watches their every move in each scenario: their attitude, the way they communicate, their knowledge and airmanship. In the end, they get a detailed debriefing, and only if things went very well do they get to continue to fly planes. Six months later, they’re back in the simulators again to train and be examined.
In between simulators, they get feedback every day. Their activity in the cockpit can be checked or re-checked anytime because they’re in plain sight, thanks to cabin voice recorders (CVRs).
What can companies learn here? To set up an even bigger “big brother” to record all people’s moves? No. It is the supervisor’s role to notice what’s going on and to give people feedback right away. Not to be too busy with their own operational activities or wait for a superficial form to fill out now and then. Companies need to make sure that supervisors consider it important to give feedback to their people. And that everyone in the organization feels safe both to speak to others and to receive feedback from others.
In this dynamic world, we all need to know now where we stand. If we want to keep talent engaged, we must not rely on old data or on assumptions about where we are and how we’re doing.
3. Build team spirit.
In the past, airline captains used to be regarded as some larger-than-life figures, not to be argued with, whatever decisions they made. You only spoke when asked to speak. You didn’t challenge their experience or perception of things.
There are countless stories of small incidents or tragic accidents that happened because captains–mere mortals, after all–did not work together with the rest of the crew, did not consider their recommendations, did not have the right situational awareness, and ultimately made a bad call because of it.
Aviation cannot afford such a leadership style and such a culture. Because of this, since 1981, airlines have implemented what is known as Crew Resource Management. It is probably the closest thing there is to the concept of team spirit. It supports working together in a structured and clear way.
Many companies say things like, “We need to work as ONE company” and “create synergies” and “break the silos.” All good intentions are there… but the structures aren’t built to make all this happen. Organizations need to ask themselves: Are procedures written with this “ONE” goal in mind? Are the systems facilitating this vision?
One thing to admire about aviation is the thoroughness of every approach. Nothing is just a slogan. There are clear expectations for every role, with hardly any grey areas. The system is built in such a way that all available resources are used in the most effective way.
How does this keep talent engaged? By communicating the message that everyone counts. Not just the captain–but the co-pilot, the flight attendants, the tower, and the staff on the ground.
In aviation, efforts to build and maintain engagement go deep into how everything is organized. They go beyond the shiny surface activities, which may sound fun, but don’t last very long. How is your company doing on this spectrum?