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.