A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
July 13th, 2013 by William

Flight 447

On June 1st 2009 Flight 447 was a scheduled commercial flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Paris, France. The Airbus A330-203 airliner crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 216 passengers and 12 aircrew. The accident was the deadliest in the history of the airline Air France. It was also the Airbus A330’s second and deadliest fatal accident, and its first while in commercial passenger service.

The initial investigation into what happened was hampered because authorities were unable to locate the wreckage. Not until 2011, nearly two years after the accident, were the aircraft’s black boxes finally recovered from the ocean floor.

The French government investigated the crash and the final report, released on July 5th 2012, stated that the aircraft crashed after temporary inconsistencies between the airspeed measurements—likely due to the aircraft’s pitot tubes being obstructed by ice crystals—which caused the autopilot to disconnect, after which the crew reacted incorrectly and ultimately led the aircraft to an aerodynamic stall from which they did not recover. The report stated that the evidence showed that “the crew floundered in a state of complete confusion and incomprehension.

As the tragedy began, the captain of Flight 447 had retired to take a nap, leaving the plane in the hands of an inexperienced junior co-pilot who was being supervised by another co-pilot. Unfortunately for all this was exactly when disaster decided to strike.

For 3½ minutes after the autopilot disconnected the co-pilots were left with controlling the plane manually as the airliner descended in a stalled glide toward the water. From the flight recorder it was discovered that the co-pilots seemed uncertain as to what exactly was happening, several times discussing whether they were actually going up or down. I’m sure the passengers were also confused–not knowing what was going on–there was no communication between the cockpit and the passengers.

It was discovered that neither co-pilots apparently had previous experience flying without instruments, and they seemed to have reacted incorrectly to the situation. Ironically all the instruments probably would have told them what the true situation was had they had the calm to actually look at them.

One of the co-pilots was recorded telling the captain, “We’ve totally lost control of the plane,” after he rushed back into the cockpit.

The French Accident Investigation Bureau’s (BEA) final report said; “In the minute that followed the autopilot disconnection, the failure of the attempts to understand the situation and the de-structuring of crew cooperation fed on each other until the total loss of cognitive control of the situation.”

While the jury is still out in regard to the cause(s) of the latest crash incident–Asiana Flight 214 that crashed in San Francisco–there appear to be some similarities. In the article “Asiana Crash: More Likely than Pilot Error? Cockpit Miscommunication,” Mark Gerchick explains a situation that may be more common than we fear.

He tells us, “Sometimes cockpit dysfunction comes from too much deference to the captain–for instance, when a subordinate junior pilot hesitates to forcefully question the actions of his superior that he believes to be wrong. Cultural mores in deference-based societies, including in Asia, can amplify that hesitancy, experts say. In other cases, it’s just a lack of cockpit communication until it’s too late.

“The bigger air safety question the Asiana crash may well re-ignite is one that’s been lurking for years in the background of some of the most troubling aviation incidents: how crew members on the flight deck interact and communicate with one another and with their super-sophisticated machines. In other words, not just how individual pilots fly, but how cockpits work as complex, dynamic teams and systems.

“In other words, operating a big commercial jet, especially on takeoff and landing, isn’t a solo flying experience. Pilots will tell you that it’s more about managing a complex system of inputs from both human and non-human sources. The industry jargon for this dynamic is “cockpit resource management,” and it covers a lot of ground: how pilots interact with one another and with the airplane; how they communicate and make piloting decisions, prioritize problems, and delegate tasks; and how flying problems get solved–or not.”

Unfortunately there are many similarities to these sad stories that can be found in the business environment, albeit without the catastrophic results. Is your organization descending “in a stalled glide toward the water?” Does your management team “think you’re going up when actually you’re going down?” In your organization does there seem to be “a failure to understand the situation and the de-structuring of cooperation feeding on each other until the total loss of cognitive control of the situation?” Does your organization suffer cockpit error?

The dictionary definition of dysfunction is; impaired or abnormal functioning, or; abnormal or unhealthy interpersonal behavior or interaction within a group–the operative word being “interaction.” This seems to describe the cockpit situation on Flight 447 and Flight 214 pretty accurately. It also describes many management teams in today’s modern organizations.

Unfortunately many organizations have management teams that suffer dysfunctional interaction and are on what Seth Godin would call “the relentless race to the bottom.” And like Flight 447, many people suffer because of the lack of management leadership to steer their organizations toward their goals. Like Flight 447, management sometimes has only experience operating in autopilot–when things are running smoothly. Many times, business is operating through no specific “remarkable” action on the part of management, i.e. they are on a straight and steady course and unprepared in the event of a disaster.

In my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw I drive home the fact that “all” workplace dysfunction starts at the very top of an organization and filters on down to the bottom–i.e., the neck of every bottle is at the top. Just like Flight 447 many top executives are virtually off taking a nap and have left the plane on autopilot.

And worse yet, control of the organization is left in the hands of incompetent sycophantic underlings who may be called upon to “fly the plane” in the absence of the top exec. For these poor sycophants, should a problem strike on their watch, they don’t really know to handle it and can do more harm than good.

The real problem is that rarely are problems in business so catastrophic as to jeopardize the whole organization, but what really is happening is that those dysfunctional sycophants are controlling the day-to-day operation of the organization and making questionable decisions on smaller problems that may, in total, mean trouble for the business’s survival.

Why? Because the typical sociopathic boss doesn’t want to hear that things are going badly and will usually “kill the messenger.” Thus the sycophants learn quickly to shield the boss from as much negative information as they can get away with–until the stuff hits the fan and it’s too late. Then they’re telling the boss “we’ve totally lost control of the plane.”

Does this describe what’s going on at your workplace? Or are you like the poor passengers of Flight 447–not knowing what’s going on because your management team doesn’t communicate? Remember you can get off the plane you’re riding on–unlike the unlucky passengers of Flight 447–don’t stay in a dysfunctional organization until it’s too late.


2 Responses to “Flight 447”
  1. Bill, as always an excellent post. Very well done.

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