Professional Skepticism

In a previous post entitled The Honest Skeptic and the Alternate Plan, we considered the importance of honest skepticism in the living of life. The honest skeptic, as opposed to the lesser skeptic, or worse, the “yes man,” recognizes the need to question when things don’t appear right.

In the world of aviation, pilots, air traffic control (ATC) and ground control share are mutually responsible for detecting and correcting errors. It is this cooperative atmosphere that make air travel as safe as it is. There are roughly 5,000 aircraft airborne over the United States as I write this blog (see http://www.flightaware.com) and I can assure you that coordinated the safe passage of each of those flights is a monumental task.

In 1986 Atlanta Tower manager Harry McIntyre wrote a Letter to Airman titled “Professional Skepticism” which outlined how the spirit of cooperation can make air travel safer:

Safe, orderly, expeditious – the watchwords of the U.S. Air Traffic Control System. These words, from the beginning of ATC, have carried the missionary message to the controller and pilot on priorities and purpose.

Our ATC system has produced many successes as it has evolved from its rudimentary beginnings to today’s sophisticated technology. The most important ingredient to this success, however, has not been technology but the cooperative relationship between pilots and controllers communicating with one another – exchanging data, making judgments, executing decisions, and yes, correcting errors committed by each other.

The person in the best position to identify and correct human errors is obviously the person who made the error. But as we often say – “to err is human.” I suspect we say this because we tend to overlook our own performance or see it better than it actually is.

In the ATC system, there’s another person, either the pilot or the controller as the case may be, who can identify and correct the error committed by the other. This does not mean that pilots and controllers need to assume an adversarial relationship or even be each others’ critic – rather, it means we must “question” when we are in doubt in any aspect of the operation at hand. As a term of reference for this need, let’s call it “Professional Skepticism.”

“Professional skepticism” is objectively reviewing the operation at hand and questioning or seeking clarification when communication or events don’t appear right. As professionals, we must be sure of our data and therefore question and seek clarity whenever we are in doubt.

A review of several incidents reveals that too often we avoid the direct method of seeking clarity and opt for the indirect, vague style. We probably tend to do this in deference to the other professional. For safety’s sake, we must avoid this “gamesmanship” and be a “Professional Skeptic.”

I encourage such questioning in my company at every level of the organization. Each of my staff is tremendously valuable to me and each brings a unique perspective to the oversight of our corporate activities. As a company, we do not dwell on errors any longer than necessary to ensure their prevention in the future. Nor do my employees hold another’s errors over his or her head. The Golden Rule applies.

Where there is a shared concern for a larger goal it is easy to come together, to put aside petty differences and to help each other perform at the highest level possible. Receiving correction graciously from a subordinate or from someone from another department requires humility and sensitivity on both parts. Treating others as you would wish to be treated makes the the necessary tone and approach clear in ways that no handbook or conflict resolution policy could illuminate.

We need one another. No one person is complete in and of himself. It makes no sense to alienate those who are there to help you in the achievement of your larger shared goal and it makes all the sense in the world to support those around your success ultimately depends upon their success.

18 thoughts on “Professional Skepticism

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  2. Foxglove

    The polar attitudes of cynicism and naivete don’t help much in life, that’s for sure. I work with clients where my job is to help to encourage a new way of dealing with their problems, and I’ve yet to see a successful long-term result when these attitudes dominate.
    I don’t mind resistance, in fact, I expect it initially with all the confusing ideas that are purported in my industry. But willful resistance is quite different – it shuts you off from anything new.
    Blind acceptance can be equally problematic, because people are reluctant to deeply prove that something for themselves, and it’s in the proving that we form new beliefs and behaviors which will stand the test of time and thus lead to meaningful change.
    I like it, ‘professional skepticism’ – never heard it put that way!

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  3. Brad

    It is an honor and privilege working with you.
    In my prior professional career I thought I had “the best job” and working environment – I basically flew around in helicopters skiing Alaska’s vast mountain ranges, climbing all throughout the Colorado Rockies, mountain biking thousands of miles of single track around the west, and boating some of the countries finest rivers – life was grand!
    However, in the 5 years I’ve worked with you and Energetix, helping others improve the health and quality of their lives, nothing can compare. Add to that a team that cares for one another and doesn’t belittle one another – is nothing short of a miracle in today’s world. I’m proud to say I am part of such an organization – thank you Gregg and Energetix.
    Hopefully we can be a role model for others to begin to create such a work environment in their companies whether they are CEO’s or mail clerks, we all can make a difference if we choose

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    1. Very kind words, Brad. I appreciate you and all you bring to the company! I was thinking just yesterday that we, in collaboration with our clients (the world’s greatest I might add) have likely improved the lives of not just tens, but hundreds of thousands of patients around the country through our work with Energetix.

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  4. Professional skepticism take on a whole different look when you are working in a family business. Life’s past experiences get added to the mix. Love your work environment for your employees. It must be an exciting place to work!

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    1. By the way, we experienced 50 knot headwind directly on the nose today for our entire trip up form Georgia to Chicago (more time to think) and I see what you mean about the bumps below 6,000′!

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  5. Mitch Webb

    Great post Gregg. I think Mr. McIntyre’s points are so important. When investigating airliner crashes, communication errors between pilots or air traffic controllers, when due to cultural differences, rank perception, or personal communication styles or issues, etc. can be seen to be a significant contribution. Whether it stems from pettiness, a foreign language barrier, or simply a learned style which doesn’t translate to the other person, it is clear there is a need to develop a shared concern, as you say, for the larger picture, and develop the means necessary to ensure navigational success for everyone. Emotional management is a vital part of this, and I’ve been enjoying your perspective on this in recent posts. Your management strategy sounds empathetic and effective. I’m sure your employees appreciate it.

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  6. Joshua

    Co-operation certainly makes logical sense. Test all things and hold fast to what is True. The Honest Skeptic is one we can work with as the means are present within them to, on a trustworthy way move forward. The “Yes Man” Can certainly not be trusted or considered trustworthy as they test nothing and hold fast to everything, so when the pressure comes on they lack the ability to discern the proper course of action.
    This revelation inspires me to shore up any area’s I may have had the Yes man tendency, (Laziness in thought) and test ALL things.
    Thanks Gregg, have a great and exciting day!

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  7. Colin

    I really enjoy getting away from the beaurocratic avoidance of “toe stepping” in communication. I don’t recommend being rude to anyone, but being able to professionally and nicely either ask a relevant question or tell someone you think there is an issue is vital to an efficient business. It’s also life saving in aviation. What an interesting letter! Thanks!

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    1. There is an art to being frank. Too direct and you risk being written off as rude. Too indirect and you risk confusing matters even worse. The sweet spot, as with nearly everything, is somewhere in the middle.

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