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Assertiveness in the Aviation Workplace

December 5, 2017

Being assertive is not easy. It’s often easier to be aggressive or passive. So how does someone without natural assertiveness, learn the skill? And why is it important for aviation safety?

If people want to develop assertiveness, they do have to screw up a bit of pluck. It’s the courage to do what you know is right, in the face of being challenged about it. Or, when someone is testing you, and you don’t like their style, and you don’t like the impact they’re having on you, it’s having the confidence to do something constructive about that. It’s not about being fearless in a confrontational situation. It’s about managing your anxiety and remaining calm and quietly determined, despite the situation.

Men, in particular, confuse assertiveness and aggressiveness. Being the loudest voice in the room, controlling the group, staring down people who disagree with you is not being assertive, it’s being aggressive. And while organisational goals may still be reached by someone ‘monstering’ their staff in such ways, morale will inevitably be low, output poor, and staff churn high.

Assertiveness, on the other hand, is built on respect – for one’s own worth and for the worth of other staff. People wanting to develop assertiveness skills have to be prepared to initiate ‘the courageous conversation’. Even if it doesn’t go perfectly, learning from each opportunity to attempt assertiveness will build the skill. Unless you actually start practising, it will always be a theoretical exercise.

So what is ‘being assertive’?

What underpins assertiveness is the acceptance that everyone in an employment situation has rights. A manager has the right to expect a certain level of behaviour and/or performance from those reporting to them. And an employee has the right to be able to offer suggestions if something is concerning them, without fear of ridicule or retribution – a ‘just culture’. Assertive people – managers and employees – recognise those rights and respect them, even while they might occupy different viewpoints.

In some workplace environments, managers do not welcome suggestions which they automatically regard as criticism, and if from less experienced staff, invalid. For employees in that environment is it important to prepare themselves for defensiveness and attack. Anticipate it, and recognise that it’s normal, particularly if you have criticised someone else’s actions and behaviour. Then prepare to calmly reassert yourself again. And again. Sometimes it can take up to five ‘assertions’ to get your point of view seriously considered. Which works fine for the employee in an environment where five ‘assertions’ would be tolerated without the threat of job loss.

The aviation industry is very hierarchical. At times it will be more difficult for the young engineer or pilot to challenge what they believe is unsafe or inappropriate. It’s easy to say to them, ‘You just have to say something because safety is at risk’, but we’re not the person who has to live with the consequences of that action. It’s something they, themselves, have to decide to do. If they do decide to challenge it, however, they have to do it assertively, which means raising the issue in a way that’s often focused on a solution, rather than the problem. So instead of saying, ‘you shouldn’t be doing this, it’s wrong’ the words need to be something like ‘I’m genuinely concerned about this because of these reasons, but if you were willing to look at doing it this way, I think it might get a better outcome and a safer outcome.’

In the face of a reasonably difficult CEO, who is short on time, something like that needs preparation so you can approach it in a composed way. But what about the situation where there is no time for such preparation – where someone is being asked to do something immediately, like sign off on a task they’ve had nothing to do with, and are possibly unhappy about? In that situation, it’s still being assertive, to hit the ‘pause’ button, keep breathing calmly and ask for more information, and more time to consider the request.

The Bulls-based flying doctor of Healthy Bastards fame, Dave Baldwin, says that situation is similar to that which many house surgeons used to face.

“You signed off on stuff when someone told you to, because you were a wee bit scared. Then something would go wrong, but you’d signed off on it, so you were responsible. That’s a maturing experience which had you more assertive in the future!

“After that, every time someone tried to get you to sign off on something you were unhappy with, you’d say ‘I’d rather go through this process and see what’s happening’ and they might respond with something like ‘No, hurry up, you have to sign this, we’re short of time here’ and the newly-assertive you would reply with ‘Well then, why don’t you sign it?

“You learned from the school of hard knocks.”

A trawl around the internet will uncover the many assertiveness courses, ‘courageous conversations’ workshops, and conflict resolution coaching now available.

One go is all it takes – Richard’s story

You could say I was a relatively passive person. I was pretty happy to go along with what everyone else wanted.

I was a commercial pilot with about 1500 hours, when the company I flew for was sold to a guy with a brand-new CPL. This guy decided that when there were no passengers, to save money, we would fly single-engine (carburetted) IFR, at night, over a known icing area.

I was really troubled by the prospect of making such high-risk flights. I tried to point out to this new guy the lunacy of what he was proposing. I told him of another pilot who’d been flying single engine on a similar route and who’d had an extremely close call with carb icing.

But he wouldn’t budge. So I told him I wasn’t going to put my neck on the line and he would need to find another pilot.

Maybe if I hadn’t felt like my life might be in danger, I wouldn’t have been so assertive. But it marked the first time I hadn’t gone along with what the boss wanted. Made me realise it is worth standing up for what you believe is right.

As it happened, I got another job quite quickly flying IFR, and instructing.

I’ve had to be assertive on many occasions since then, but the confidence to be so, began with that first instance.

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