Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster
For anyone who has watched HBO’s Chernobyl, aside from feeling extreme empathy for the harrowing human impact, you will know the frustration of watching the chain of decisions that resulted in catastrophe. According to HBO’s representation of the disaster, deputy chief-engineer Anatoly Dyatlov was hell bent on carrying out a test on the reactor, despite safety concerns from his team. He pushed his team to carry out actions which destabilised the reactor, and threatened members of his team who contradicted him or raised safety concerns. This culture of fear and absolute authority put Chernobyl on a collision course to disaster, with no hope of intervention.
Cockpit culture change
Haunting parallels can be drawn between the poor communication practices at Chernobyl and why Korean Air had a significantly higher number of crashes than other airlines in the 90’s.
“In at least two Asian accidents over the past few years, there is evidence that serious, even violent, disagreement occurred between pilots in the moments before impact. In many others, there is evidence that effective questioning and crosschecking could have changed settings that led to disaster.”
“Nobody would expect that interpersonal factors like rudeness or intimidation could be the leading cause of a plane crash.”
Malcolm Gladwell came up with an ethnic theory for theses crashes, which believes that if we are from a culture where authority is respected above all else, we will find it harder – even when lives are at stake – to challenge a higher authority. In 2000, Korean Air brought in experts to help improve communication in the cockpit. They began speaking English, a language that didn’t belong to their culture. This allowed them in a way, to have a different kind of identity when speaking. The change in language spoken in the cockpit had amazing results in reducing crashes, and now Korean Air has an excellent safety record.
The need for a process of escalation is gaining traction in the medical world too, where mistakes have life and death ramifications. Training is provided to junior doctors, including suggested phrases to point out concerns in a way that is not too direct, and how to raise it again if the junior is still concerned that no action has been taken.
Although hierarchy is normal and often beneficial to organisations, it’s important to establish safe working environments. Not safe in the sense of protecting against a nuclear disaster (which is a given) but psychological safety. That is, a safe environment in which people can raise concerns and ideas to their seniors without fear, ridicule or retribution. It may result in a new product, a better way of doing things, and in some cases, it may prevent a disaster for your company.
How to create psychological safety
· Having leaders who are willing to listen
· Having good feedback channels – a combination of anonymous and face to face
· Addressing cultural concerns, identifying champions for how you’d like people to communicate, and minimising harm from those adding to a culture of fear.