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The Missing Piece of the Safety Puzzle?

With the help of “emotional intelligence,” business aviation may be able to achieve a higher level of safety.

Technical failures once plagued aviation, but the industry’s technological prowess and dedicated pursuit of excellence dramatically improved safety. With the introduction of crew resource management (CRM) programs and safety management systems (SMS), business aircraft operations have discovered that the human impact on accidents is more of a challenge. However, with the help of emotional intelligence, business aviation may be able to achieve a higher level of safety.

The principles of emotional intelligence and their impact on safety have been studied since the late 1970s, when NASA was developing the first CRM, but the idea that leaders need more than intelligence and technical skill to succeed only took hold in corporate America 20 years ago after the publication of seminal works by behavioral and brain scientist Daniel Goleman at Harvard University. In his studies, Goleman proved that the most successful business leaders distinguished themselves from their peers because they were able to combine self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skills – the five components of emotional intelligence – to create a highly productive and more profitable working environment.

Industries from medicine to finance have since embraced emotional intelligence for their leaders, and technology titans – like Amazon President, CEO and Chairman Jeff Bezos and Tesla CEO and Co-Founder Elon Musk – are regularly lauded for their high awareness of the power of emotional intelligence in organizations.

Applying Emotional Intelligence to Aviation

Aviation could raise safety standards to new heights by adopting the principles of emotional intelligence, say industry experts Sonnie Bates, Bill Koch and Jim Spigener in their study “Emotional Intelligence, Psychological Safety and Safety Culture.”

But how can emotional intelligence be applied to business aviation?

For Bates, Koch and Spigener, emotional intelligence is the ability to monitor one’s own emotional state, as well as the emotional states of others, and to manage one’s behavior to ensure the collective emotional state remains positive and constructive. For aviation operations seeking to improve safety, they must create a psychologically safe environment where every team member, regardless of their level, can express ideas freely without fear of rejection or stigma, the three authors conclude.

“To create a strong safety environment, we must employ soft skills – such as effective verbal and non-verbal communication and conflict management – so that we can effectively communicate and trust one another. ”

SONNIE BATES CEO, Wyvern Ltd.

“It’s all about open dialogue,” says Bates, who is CEO of NH-based safety and security risk management firm Wyvern Ltd. “The aviation industry demands a high degree of technical skill and intelligence. But the primary reason we have accidents in aviation is because of human factors like fatigue, poor communication and poor decision-making. To create a strong safety environment, we must employ soft skills – such as effective verbal and non-verbal communication and conflict management – so that we can effectively communicate and trust one another. For that, you need more than technical intelligence and skill; emotional intelligence and psychological safety are a must.”

The characteristics of an aviation operation employing a high level of emotional intelligence are easy to find, says Koch, the founder of Koch Leadership Coaching who consults with and coaches Fortune 500 executives, private enterprises and academia.
“You’ll find a high level of trust, a high level of performance and a high level of comfort and camaraderie,” says Koch. “You will know there is a high level of emotional intelligence because it’s a place where people want to work, where the people want to part of something bigger than themselves.”

A good example of an organization that successfully employs emotional intelligence to improve safety is the U.S. Air Force Air Education and Training Command, says Bates, who started his career as a U.S. Air Force pilot.

“At the end of each mission, we had a debrief,” explained Bates. “This encouraged us to talk about how we could improve, and it happened in an environment that was psychologically safe for us to admit to our mistakes and less-than-excellent performance,” he recalled.

“In the initial phase of implementing daily or post-mission debriefs, the participants should talk about their own performance and ways to improve it instead of focusing on someone else,” continued Bates. “However, as trust and psychological safety builds, it will become easier to ask another person about their performance, if it was different than expected, which is an essential part of effective debriefing.

“We need to create an environment where people want to engage in conversations about professionalism, excellence, and continual improvement,” added Bates. “When leaders create and nurture a culture where team members believe that debriefing is a professional responsibility that benefits the individual and the team, and not viewed as personal attacks, aviation safety will enter into a new era.”

This environment is only possible when leadership is committed, says Spigener, who is chief client officer at global safety consulting firm Dekra. “The great leaders used to be called ‘visionaries,’ but we have found that the most highly successful leaders are those that understand the importance of collaboration. For that to work, you have to show everyone on the team that they are valued and trusted, provide an environment where every worker feels their ideas are accepted without fear of punishment or ridicule, and rewards those who speak up,” Spigener notes.

Owning the Idea of Safety

“CRMs and SMSes are a great first step for business aviation, but on their own, they are lifeless, a list of things to do,” says Spigener. “These programs only work when the team sees leaders embrace and own the idea of safety. Only then will the entire team take ownership of a safety program.”

“From a safety aspect, if a flight department acknowledges and supports emotional intelligence and psychological safety, you’ll have pilots who are secure in making good decisions and recommendations for better procedures because it is the right thing to do, not because it’s the easiest or most compliant,” Koch says. “That’s what creates a healthy safety culture and enhances overall performance by the measures that matter most.”

Incorporating emotional intelligence into the work environment takes time, notes Bates, but aviation operations should look at this the same way they once considered safety management programs.

“For a while, it will be an add-on, but eventually everyone will look at this as a natural part of how things are done,” said Bates.

“Pilots, for instance, view flight simulator training as a natural part of the job,” explained Bates. “However, the quality of the debrief varies greatly among instructors. If those training sessions promoted principles and techniques to effectively debrief, with insights into emotional intelligence and psychological safety, pilots would eventually appreciate effective debriefing as a way to be more professional.”

Fostering Change

A work environment that employs a high level of emotional intelligence also establishes a climate that accepts change, says Spigener, and that could revolutionize the foundation on how organizations approach safety.

“People make safety decisions based on the likelihood of the outcome of their action and not by appreciating how their actions increase or decrease their exposure to risk,” asserts Spigener. “Most times, when you see an accident, it is because a person has allowed their exposure to risk to increase. You cannot change a standard of safety without first understanding that as long as you focus on limiting the risk of injury and not on controlling exposure to risk, then accidents will be inevitable. Adopting a new approach to safety will take time and effort from leadership and workers alike, and for that, you need an environment of trust and acceptance,” says Spigener.

For Koch, aviation’s unceasing commitment to improving safety will enable the industry to reap the greatest rewards from emotional intelligence.

“Emotional intelligence is a self-exploration,” says Koch. “An organization that undertakes more rigorous self-evaluation gets more meaningful benefit from that work. In aviation, our best work is when we are working safest, and a safer operation has been proven to be more achievable and more sustainable in an environment of enhanced emotional intelligence.” he concluded.

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