On December 28, 1978, United Airlines Flight 173 crashed six miles from the airport in suburban Portland, Oregon.

  • As the flight was preparing its descent, the small green light on the dashboard, which indicated the right main landing gear was extended and locked, never lit. The pilot ordered the plane into a holding pattern while the flight crew investigated whether the malfunction was a problem with the landing gear or the light bulb.

At one point, the junior pilot timidly expressed his concern about their fuel levels. His concern was summarliy acknowledged, and the captain returned his attention to diagnosing the equipment failure and, ironically, preparing for the contingency of an emergency landing.

As the crew prepared for the final approach, the plane exhausted its fuel and crashed, killing 10 of the 189 souls on board.

When something goes wrong, it is often our response—good or bad—that determines the nature of the outcome. A muddled response, compounded by a lack of clear communication, can turn a minor inconveience into something much more serious.

In response to Flight 173, United Airlines became the first to implement as standard training a program now called Crew Resource Management (CRM). CRM gives a clear formula for raising concerns and suggesting a remedial course of action without confrontation.

Consider the example given by Bruce Daisley in Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat (affiliate link):

“Hey, Captain, it seems we have only an hour’s worth of fuel left. How about I radio and ask for an urgent landing slot. Does that sound good?”

In those twenty-eight nonaggressive, nonpanicked words are an opening, an expression of concern, an outlining of the problem, a suggested solution, and an invitation to agreement. It’s a five-point format that everyone is trained to understand. It creates a psychologically safe zone in which people can openly say what is worrying them without fear that they will be slapped down or ignored.

Let’s take a closer look at that formula.

  1. Approach the decision-maker with respect. “Hey, Captain”. This reminds them of their role and their responsibilty to handle the situation. You’re about to help them succeed by helping them solve a problem—one which they might not even be aware of.
  2. Make a factual statement of the problem as you see it. “It seems we only have an hour’s worth of fuel left.” You’re not accusing anyone of making a mistake. Your job is to help solve the problem. Save the discussion of culpability for the after-action review. In some circumstances, this may be introduced with an owned statement of concern (“I’m concerned about…”).
  3. Propose a solution. “How about I radio and ask for an urgent landing slot.” Always take solutions to your boss, not problems. It shows you’re aware of the situation, you’ve thought through the problem, and you’ve already reached a recommended course of action.
  4. Ask for the green light. “Does that sound good?” As Daisley puts it, you’re inviting them to agree to the course of action before you take it. If they’re responsible for the situation, they need to approve your solution before you take it.

CRM was originally designed for highly authoritarian teams, like flight crews, operating rooms, and the military. It works just as well in the office, where you have the same structure of direct reports and leaders who are accountable for results. You can even use CRM between peers, whether that’s your coworkers, friends, or spouse.

Even when lives aren’t at stake, a crisis situation is no time for ego. You’re on a team that is working for a common goal. Speak up and offer solutions. If you don’t have a solution, you still need to speak up and raise your concern. Others may have the experience, training, and skills to identify the solution.

After the crisis has passed, then you can take the time to sit down, review what happened, and figure out how to solve the problem such that you never have to solve the problem again.

Question: What crises at your work would benefit the most from more clear communication? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.