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Navigating Tensions and Controversy in the Flight Department

From rising political tensions, global conflicts and financial worries, to difficulties reentering the workplace environment – and society in general – following the COVID lockdowns of the past two years, our lives may seem more stressful today than ever before. Those pressures can follow us into the workplace, including business aviation flight operations.

“Employees today are more open about their concerns in the workplace,” said NBAA Human Resources Director Annemarie Oxman. Beyond overtly political issues, she continued, “there are more conversations about rising gas prices, inflation and even the cost of buying lunch now that many of us are no longer working from home.”

One of the biggest conflicts I’ve heard when speaking with other HR leaders has been the question if remote or hybrid work is here to stay,” agreed Leon Holloway, vice president of Team Member Services for Duncan Aviation. “It’s proving difficult for many people to return to their pre-COVID workstyles, and while there is no cookie-cutter answer to this question, there is a consistent message that companies wishing to keep top talent should be cognizant of remote and hybrid options available to eligible employees.

Sheryl Barden, CAM, president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, has noted an uptick in clients mentioning the need to separate individuals on flight crews due to interpersonal conflicts, many of which revolve around political differences.

“There was a time when you never discussed religious or political beliefs in the workplace, but today it’s become commonplace conversation,” she said. “Likely not everyone in the flight department, or even in the cockpit, shares the same views. Currently, there is more polarization of thoughts and values than anyone in today’s workplace has ever experienced. That leads directly to potential conflicts.”

Barden also pointed to the inundation of the 24-hour news cycle as another factor in elevating tensions. “Almost every hangar and FBO I’ve been through lately had a TV news show blaring in the lobby or waiting room,” she said. “That is often the last thing you hear before you get on the airplane, and it can lead to controversial discussions on the flight deck that may carry real safety ramifications as well.”

Dr. Shari Frisinger, a behavioral analyst with Sajet Solutions and an adjunct assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, likened the effects from current tensions to “water slowly eroding” a person’s psyche, a situation further exacerbated by the pandemic.

“During COVID, many of us were inside our homes and inside our heads,” she said. “It was an unsettling and unfamiliar time for many of us, so we looked for news and entertainment that furthered our views.”

Upon reentering the workplace, Frisinger continued, interaction with those with differing views may trigger an instinctive, and potentially aggressive, physiological response. “In our brains, the amygdala looks for threats in our environment,” she continued. “Even words can be perceived as a threat triggering an immediate emotional response to defend ourselves.”

Encourage Discourse but Avoid Disruptions

Recognizing potential sources for conflict, and the individual’s response to those factors, is key for companies and flight departments to mitigate tensions when they arise.

“While we do face a lot of added stress today, this isn’t really a new situation,” Holloway said. “Whenever you bring people together from various backgrounds, bringing with them different work styles and different beliefs, you will ultimately have some type of conflict.”

To mitigate those situations, Holloway recommends companies have an established code of conduct for the workplace, from which defined policies for dealing with interpersonal conflicts and controversial topics can be structured accordingly.

“There was a time when you never discussed religious or political beliefs in the workplace, but today it’s become commonplace conversation.”

SHERYL BARDEN CAM, President and CEO, Aviation Personnel International

“It is morally ethical for an employer to have some guidance for dealing with such conflicts,” he said. “Those policies should be readily available for managers to utilize for dialogue around sensitive topics, and when conflicts do arise, managers should also consider a meeting with HR and the parties involved where they have the opportunity to share their concerns.

“Above all, employees must recognize how these disruptions hurt the company and their coworkers,” he added.

Oxman agreed. “Companies and organizations must create professional work environments built around respect, where people feel safe and no one is excluded,” she said. “The workplace should be focused on working toward common goals, regardless of what may be happening outside that environment.”

However, managers should not ignore potential sources of conflict. “You can certainly have a healthy exchange of ideas, even if they are polar opposite,” Frisinger said. “The key is to not approach such conversations as win/lose propositions, but rather meeting in the middle and, ultimately, to achieve our common goals at work.”

“You can’t completely shut off such conversations,” Barden agreed, “but you must let people know that it’s not acceptable for those conversations to affect the workplace. You put the policy out there, hold to it, and let it be known there may be consequences for violating that policy.”

While emphasizing that ultimate responsibility for such actions lies with the individual, “it’s the responsibility of leadership to model good behavior,” she continued. “If a manager engages in such conversations, now you’re modeling that it’s acceptable for the workplace, the flight department and the flight deck.”

Recognize Stress to Mitigate its Effects

Acknowledging the difficulties in finding the balance between an employee’s right to their opinions with the need to maintain civility in the workplace, Frisinger emphasized managers need to be proactive in identifying rising tensions and, “keep your ear to the ground. Listen to your ‘gut feeling’ when it senses a change in tone in the department.”

“Managers must remain engaged with their employees,” agreed Oxman. “People bring a lot with them into the work environment, and even if that doesn’t lead to conflict it’s important to recognize how decisions and events outside the workplace can weigh heavily on them.” Employee assistance programs (EAPs) can be an important resources in such situations, she noted.

Recalling the axiom “we judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their behaviors,” Frisinger emphasized the importance of seeking mitigation when conflict arises. “That is how we maintain civility, and over time it will start to click,” she said. “A lot goes on in our brains that consciously we don’t even realize.”

“We need to acknowledge that other people are going through the same challenges we are,” Holloway concluded. “Really, we’re all just trying to survive right now. Why are we adding stress and conflict to all the other stuff that we don’t have any control over?”

Review NBAA’s personnel management resources at nbaa.org/personnel.

Pilot Conflict Delays Airline Flight

Pilot Conflict Delays Airline Flight

Earlier this year, a commercial airline flight crew returned their aircraft to the gate so one of the pilots could disembark following an unexplained conflict. According to news reports, passengers on board Alaska Airlines Flight 1080 reported one of the pilots announced “a failure to get along” with his fellow pilot, leading him to depart the aircraft “in the interest of safety.”

Calling the situation “unfortunate,” the airline asserted the pilots “did the right thing” in remedying the matter. “Both the captain and the first officer were evaluated by management and it was determined they remained fit to fly,” Alaska Airlines tweeted.

Passengers on the July 18 flight from Washington Dulles International Airport to San Francisco International Airport, which prior to the incident had been held for 90 minutes due to inclement weather, each received a $175 stipend for the further delay as the airline located an alternate flight crew.

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