Dangerous team thinking styles in Aviation

In the aviation working environment, it is almost impossible that one will work as an individual only. For instance, airline pilots work as a crew; air traffic control and aircraft engineers work as a team; even ground staff, airline cabin crew; and roles that do not involve direct operation, i.e. auditing team, airline revenue and planning streams to name a few. Each operating team in the aviation working environment contributes heavily towards a safe and secure travelling environment to travellers and other workers. Hence, it is important to understand the hazardous types of group thinking styles that may lead or contribute to accidents. The following article gives an insight of how each type of thinking style can be applied in an aviation working environment, with the intention to raise attention to aviation team leaders and managers to improve team performance by preventing dangerous group thinking styles (Refer to Team Thinking Styles in Wiki of Science for definition of thinking styles below)

1. Conformity

Conformity is particularly common in the cockpit, as per its heavy hierarchy culture. The seniority of pilots define the decision power in the cabin, and often pilots with lower seniority do not want to speak up because they do not want to be excluded from the team by pointing out hazards that their seniors may not have noticed. It is however important that all individuals should not feel pressured to stay silent when they sense hazards that will potentially affect operations. Conformity is also more obvious in some cultures than others, for example Chinese pilots are most of a conformist compared to pilots from the United States as influenced by their national culture they have learnt to show respect to seniors under a heavily hierarchy society and must not be the odd one to speak up if they were to be accepted in the group.

2. Groupthink

Groupthink is more likely to occur in cabin crew or ground crew, where individuals work in a larger scale and consists of a majority of ritualists who conform to the group to avoid conflict with others. As majority of the group are ritualists, individuals lack the ability of rational decision making when they are working inside the group. Conformity and Groupthink is a very common problem in most working environments, and the major disadvantage of this is that the team loses an important capability of gathering knowledge from team members, where ideas can be gathered to make the best decisions. It is important that in a group different opinions are heard and taken into consideration by the team leader or manager, as each individual in the group may be representing experiences from different levels of education background, various cultures and traditions, etc.

3. Group Polarisation

Group Polarisation can be applied to a wider context; the most common example that often leads to extreme negative thinking of employees towards their employers would be labour unions. This affects the whole aviation industry in the region at a much larger scale; where union leaders lead members to an extreme attitude, for example the need for a raise in pay. For the obvious reasons Group Polarisation can lead to extensive delays to aviation operations, and cost the aviation industry millions of dollars. Many airlines experience engineer, maintenance staff, pilots, cabin crew and even ground crew strikes often against extreme feelings towards being underpaid or treated poorly.

4. Social Loafing

This phenomenon is especially dangerous in the aviation working environment, as reduced effort form individuals can increase carelessness or reduce in awareness, leading/ contributing to human errors, near misses, incidents or even accidents. For example, if a maintenance staff rushed through his checklist as he thought that his effort won't be recognised for doing routine checks, and that if he misses something other colleagues would pick it up anyway; if every member of the maintenance team thought the same way and did not put their full effort into their maintenance job, eventually one or two malfunctions would have been missed out, then there maybe serious consequences during the operation of the flight, which can lead to incidents or even fatal accidents. Social loafing can be improved by making measurements of individual performances, i.e. appraisal or incentive for outstanding work performance.

5. Bystander Effect

The Bystander Effect is another extremely dangerous type of group thinking style, as it is very important in the aviation working environment that any hazards are noticed and reported. Say if a cabin crew thinks there is a fire by looking outside the window, but she says nothing as she was scared and thought that her Inflight Service Manager will report this to the cockpit, and the manager saw that her crew had already noticed the fire and assumed that they would let the Captain know so she carried on with her work; the likely outcome of this situation would be that no one informs the cockpit and when they realise it would be very late to take any action without serious consequences.

Want to know more?

EARL L (2006). Leadership and managing errors. Massey University (Palmerston North, New Zealand), 2006.

Team Thinking Styles An article explaining team thinking styles in a broader and more general context, with definitions of what team thinking styles involve.

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Authors / Editors

Amber WanAmber Wan

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