Speak Up & Speak In

Being a fully effective team member requires that we find ways to contribute our whole selves to the betterment of our team.  Not just our qualifications, but our life experience, our strengths and our viewpoints.  That each of us is different means that each of us brings variety and diversity to a team that would otherwise be one dimensional, and yet it’s against our baseline human nature to speak up and speak in.

Our baseline human nature is to do whatever we need to do to stay part of the tribe – to not be outcast to die alone because we can’t fend for ourselves.  This instinct is hardwired into the cave man part of our brain (reptilian brain) and it governs much of how we respond on a daily basis.  We outwardly agree with things we don’t agree with inside.  We aim to please people in ways we wouldn’t otherwise choose to do.  We make decisions and take actions that benefit others, but not always ourselves – or the other way around.  When we make mistakes, we’re reserved about highlighting them, and if those we’d like to please make mistakes, we’re even more silent.  When we see things that may impact our team negatively, we wait to see whether anyone else has noticed and is going to say something.

In aviation, we have enough experience to know that this approach kills people.  That allowing our own errors and those of others to go unnoticed, uncorrected and unlearned-from is defeatist in the extreme – and that whilst it may ensure we’re not ejected from the tribe in the short term, it may eventually result in the whole tribe being taken down together. 

There’s a phrase that was read at the passing of one of our tribe, early in my piloting years, and it has stuck with me always.  It says:

“Whenever we talk about a pilot who has been killed in a flying accident, we should all keep one thing in mind.  He called upon the sum of all his knowledge and made a judgement.  He believed in it so strongly that he knowingly bet his life on it.  That his judgement was faulty was a tragedy, not stupidity.  Every inspector, supervisor, and contemporary who ever spoke to him had an opportunity to influence his judgement, so a little bit of all of us goes with every pilot we lose.”

~ Author Unknown

This thought is a powerful one.  Not only because the cost for failure is high in aviation, but because in any arena, it highlights our individual responsibility to show up as a useful teammate and fully engage ourselves.  There is a vitally important second element to speaking up and speaking in that determines its effectiveness though, and that’s how we choose to do it.

Part of the definition of Crew Resource Management (which is aviation’s study of effective human communication) states that we “aim to foster a climate or culture where the freedom to respectfully question authority is encouraged”.  The way in which we choose to speak up and speak in determines whether we are heard and whether our contribution is useful to the team.  Doing it right has much to do with the team-agreed essence of why it’s important and that we make the effort to do it respectfully.

Unless there is a leader-led team conversation about why speaking up and speaking in is not only helpful, but vital to the survival and growth of the team and operation as a whole, then even those brave enough to do so may negate this purpose by raising egos when they speak and being shot down as a result.  This is exactly why people aren’t inclined to speak up in the first place.

Speaking up and speaking in requires that we all work to create a safe space where the contribution of all our team members is encouraged and supported.  We need to highlight the value of the varying viewpoints our team members bring, because our strength lies in making full use of the fact that we see things differently to question and cover each other.  Speaking up and speaking in requires courage and is the honourable thing to contribute as a team member of a powerhouse team.  It requires the support and encouragement of the whole team, and that the importance of contribution be highlighted and appreciated.

To drive the point home with a blatant aviation example:  If a cabin crew member looks out of the window and sees that the wing is on fire, she doesn’t look at that and think “Meh….not my job.”  She knows who to communicate that to, HOW to communicate it and what she needs to do once she’s done so.  She knows that what she’s seeing affects the whole operation and she moves to play her part in ensuring the safety of that operation.

Whilst this may seem obvious, the Big Picture mentality needed to understand that something may eventually be harmful to your team, especially when the harm is not immediately apparent, is something we grow and train for.  None of us is born with it – it’s built out of constantly growing our perspective, imagination and knowledge.  When we’re in an environment where this is encouraged and supported, we quickly rewire our survival instincts toward the protection of the team, rather than just the protection of self.

It’s our responsibility as valuable team members to speak up and speak in in ways that make others able and prepared to hear us.  It’s our responsibility as leaders to create environments where effective contribution is encouraged and supported.  We are #strongertogether, and each of our contributions has value.

by Christen Killick

February 3rd, 2020

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