“Dark Cockpit” by Emil Dobrovolschi and Octavian Pantis is a book that learns us how to become a better pilot for our projects, for our people, and even in life outside work by using valuable principles from aviation.
What is a dark cockpit? That is what we call a situation where no lights are on – no blue for extra usage, amber for caution, or red for danger. Everything is going smoothly. Everything is under control and working within its normal parameters. The plane is flying, and the passengers are doing their own thing: reading a book, watching a movie, having a snack, etc.
That is how we want all flights to be – in a dark cockpit. That is also why engineers designed the cockpit the way it is so that the lights do not distract us from flying the plane.
To achieve this state of a dark cockpit, pilots need to put in a lot of work and check many things. They must use the plane’s systems correctly and make sure they do not exceed any operating limits.
In the context of this book, a “dark cockpit” is a lifestyle in which you strive to keep things under control, anticipate and predict possible problems, minimize stress, and handle things with ease and efficiency.
“A pilot must enunciate clearly and use the appropriate tone and rhythm when communicating a message to the copilot or air traffic control.”
Critical communication patterns
1. Communicate even when it doesn’t seem necessary
This statement might remind you of the joke about a conversation between a married couple: “Dear, you haven’t told me you loved me lately, and I’m worried that you don’t love me anymore.” “Sweetheart, I told you I love you 20 years ago when we got married. If anything changes, I’ll let you know.”
Now, this is hardly the picture you had in mind for that first bit of advice, is it? You were probably thinking more along these lines: maybe you haven’t heard from your teammates in days about the project you’re coordinating. You’re tempted to believe that everything is going well. Perhaps it is, or maybe things got stuck, and no one is saying anything because the situation is “not critical” yet. But time wasted now may cost you dearly later.
The truth is most people choose not to communicate because they make assumptions.
2. Start with the facts
“We have to reschedule the meeting” is a message that is bound to be met with a prompt “why?” because it is an incomplete communication. Correct or not, it is your subjective conclusion, provoked by either an external cause (“the client isn’t coming”) or an internal cause (“I’m not satisfied with how my presentation turned out”). Either way, rescheduling the meeting may indeed be the right decision, but there could also be better alternatives.
Most of the time, it is better to start with the facts. Describe the situation as it is, as neutrally as you can – no interpretations, no generalizations, without automatically leading the discussion to a position that is favorable to you. People catch on, sooner or later.
If you put all the facts on the table, then you can decide together, or leave it up to the boss, the client, or whoever else. If you start with the facts, you can save yourself unnecessary stress and even embarrassment. If you try to manipulate the situation, it might come crashing down on you. Manipulation is the killer of relationships.
3. Standardize as much as possible
Every communication loop is closed with a confirmation like “Check!” or a repetition of the message, such as “my controls/your controls”. What are the area in your life that have open loops?
What can you standardize? When the rules are clear, you daily activity becomes a lot less stressful, and the unavoidable mishaps become much easier to handle.
The late Peter Drucker used to say, “Don’t make 100 decisions when one will do,” meaning we all have situations that we deal with frequently. We can decide what to do and how to communicate every time one of them occurs, or we can make a single decision about how we do things, establish a procedure, a set of messages that we need to communicate in a given situation. The “If this, then that” app is useful for automation some of those activities. Developing strategies takes a bit of time, but you can be sure they work once you do.
How do you communicate unequivocally? By not giving people reasons to double you.
The right command at the right moment
Glide slope! is a standard call – a specific message that has to be communicated at the right moment. This particular message is how the Pilot Monitoring informs the Pilot Flying of a deviation from the correct path of descent.
There are 3 Reactions to Glide slope!
You have these same three approaches at your disposal when things don’t go your way. Of the three, only one is a heathy response; avoid others.
- The submissive approach: when something is wrong, as the observer, you can always hold your tongue or merely suggest an answer. This approach has many names: from “passive”, “defensive” and “submissive” to the more colloquial “shy” or “sheepish”. When you go for this approach, you don’t change a thing, either because you value the relationship too much, you don’t care about the outcome, or some mix of these or other reasons. Pilots have crashed planes because someone was too afraid to speak up.
- The aggressive approach: the second approach is where you say what you need to say, but how you say it, the tone you take, offends the other party. The message itself gets across, but due to a heightened state of stress, anger and hostility are also being communicated.
- The assertive approach: in between those first two approaches, another one exists – the assertive approach. This is when you say your piece, but you stick to the facts, and you don’t attack the other person in any way. You assert yourself, but you also maintain an even, composed demeanor.
Let’s go deep about the assertive approach:
All communication in aviation was designed with the assertive approach in mind. The 100 Knots! example. The pilot does not make up what he or she wants to say. The procedure specifies the right response: the somewhat dry but efficient “check!” when the Pilot Flying deviates from the landing slope, the Pilot Monitoring doesn’t go “Excuse me, perhaps you can check the screen as something seems to be less than perfect,” but keeps it brief and to the point, avoiding room for any unnecessary passivity or aggression – “Glide slope!”
Aviation aggressive-submissive combination, in the world of aviation, if this approach had a name, it would be “Korean Air,” and it led to two decade’s worth of disasters.
A case study: Korean Air
The authors of the book describe a case study from Korean Air, and the incidents’ investigations uncovered the “uniqueness” of Korean culture, with its long tradition of total respect towards one’s superiors and rigid adherence to hierarchy. The way one addresses their elders or higher-ups is quite nuanced and restrained and cannot be initiated at any time. For example, a direct address may be downright rude in some situations.
For copilot to notify the commander that the latter has made a mistake is considered impertinent, no matter how grave the error. Picture that culture in the cockpit; imagine having to act under those constraints in times of crisis or key moments for your team. All this to say that these traditions and institutions created a culture of miscommunication that led Korean Air to be considered one of the most dangerous airlines in the world. Luckily, the situation has changed now.
The responsibility falls squarely on your shoulders
Can you be assertive in every interaction you have in your day-to-day life? Probably not. Plus, sometimes, if we let aggressiveness take over, we can regret what we say and do, not only after the fact but even during the act. We also know that a submissive approach may create distance in some relationships and cause tension to accumulate. Unfortunately, we may take this tension out on our loved ones, who are the least deserving of such treatment.
This chapter challenges you to apply assertiveness as often as you can. If you’re always assertive, you will not only communicate better but also carve out a reputation for yourself as a person of principle, someone trustworthy.
Perhaps you’re wondering: “Fine, but what do I do if every day I am bombarded with annoying problems that are clearly not my fault? And what do I do if I have to deal with all these problems with zero leeway? How can I stay assertive? When do I get to be angry and explode, just a little?”
Pilots face the same challenges. Although pilots are not the ones who caused the problem in many cases, the responsibility of solving it falls squarely on their shoulders because it is their mission to successfully land the plane with all its passengers safe and sound. Always. Maybe you too carry similar burdens, where you’re the one responsible for the outcome regardless of the cause, only in your case, the problems occur on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
Today aviation trains beginners to be better acquainted with the flight deck – that interface between the plane and the pilot – and appropriately react to its signals. On the whole, we emphasize respecting procedure more than knowing every nook and cranny in the plane. The more experienced the pilots and the more they aspire to advance, the more versed they need to be.
The old style of work – where people were mostly concerned with checking things off a list and passing on the responsibility to someone else – is counterproductive, and it has no place in the modern work environment.
No matter how complicated a job may be, there are always ways to prepare the “human factor’ better. Passive box-ticking is not it, and that is why the paradigm has shifted to a more proactive approach.
What’s your attitude?
We’re going to expand it a bit now on the subject of attitude, because attitude makes all the difference. We can influence it for better or worse through a submissive, aggressive, or assertive approach, depending on what we decide.
By choosing the right attitude every time and leading by example, you can influence the attitude of those around you. The hardest thing to evaluate is someone’s attitude. Despite a whole mechanism of evaluation and control, this aspect still proves quite tricky.
Attitude is the most critical element, the magnifying glass through which we inspect a professional.
It is not merely the cherry on a cake made of years of study and hard work; it is the very thing that makes the cake rise. It depends greatly on your environment, where and how you grew up, first at home, then in formal education, your culture, and your professional training. Knowledge and skills need a base, a foundation. That foundation is a correct attitude towards others.
As a leader, do you encourage your team members to speak up and feel free to give each other feedback? To you?
Commanders are the most experienced members of the team, the leaders. They are the most prepared and have the necessary knowledge and skills to guarantee a smooth landing every time. Of course, this status may sometimes lead to inappropriate attitudes such as arrogance. In the absence of checks and balances and no option to contest the leadership, it is up to the leaders to establish ways to hold themselves accountable.
The simplest way to do that is to acknowledge that you’re human and that no matter how experienced you are, you’re going to make mistakes. There will be things you’ll miss, details you won’t be able to see, regardless of how good you are or how many times you’ve done it. Wouldn’t it be better if you had someone you could trust to tell you when something is amiss?
Be a good leader, communicate assertively, listen to the people around you, and do your best to contribute to their development.