Authority Gradient refers to the established, and/or perceived, command and decision-making power hierarchy in a Team, Crew or Group situation, and also how balanced the distribution of this power is experienced within the Team, Crew or Group. Concentration of power in one person leads to a steep gradient, while more democratic and inclusive involvement of others results in a shallow gradient.
Authority is not always associated with the competence to use such authority effectively, and it may be denoted by Rank, defined by Role, adopted through Ability and/or appropriated by force of character. In terms of responsibility for decision-making, authority may also be thrust reluctantly onto another person (knowingly or unknowingly) by colleagues who shirk responsibility or feel under-confident.
(Extreme) Steep Authority Gradient
When a team leader has an overbearing, dominant and dictatorial style of management, the team members will experience a steep authority gradient. Team members will view such leaders as overly opinionated, stubborn, and aggressive. When such conditions exist, expressing concerns, questioning decisions, or even simply clarifying instructions will require considerable determination as any comments will often be met with criticism. Team members may then perceive their input as devalued or unwelcome and cease to offer anything; and, in extreme cases, cease to participate completely.
Steep Authority gradients act as barriers to team involvement, reducing the flow of feedback, halting cooperation, and preventing creative ideas for threat analyses and problem solving. Only the most assertive, confident, and sometimes equally dominant team members will feel able to challenge authority. Authoritarian leaders are likely to consider any type of feedback as a challenge and respond aggressively; thereby reinforcing or steepening the gradient further.
Authoritarian leaders are often described as “goal orientated” at the expense of “people orientation”. They may themselves consider that this is the case, but by denying themselves the resources available (skills, knowledge and motivational support of other team members) their actions are self-defeating and goals are less likely to be attained.
(Extreme) Shallow Authority Gradient
A “paternalistic” leader who only pursues a course of action that has been democratically agreed, following equal opportunity for each and every team member to give input, will have reduced the authority gradient to zero. Decision-making will be extremely slow, and by giving equal opportunities to all, irrespective of experience levels, some of those decisions will be wrong. This in itself can undermine the leader’s authority in the eyes of more experienced team members and possibly lead to their disengagement.
Such circumstances, and subsequent breakdown of communication, may also result in some team members acting independently of the leader. Responsibilities may become blurred.
Confusion over Authority Gradient
In some situations a shallow authority gradient may exist solely through the composition of the team and/or the type of task being conducted, rather than through an overly democratic leadership style.
Aircraft captains often fly with other captains. Flying trainers and examiners will fly with fully qualified pilots; sometimes, these trainers will be under observation themselves from another trainer. Safety auditors may be observing crew behaviours, yet be senior pilots themselves. Parallel situations also exist in air traffic control, maintenance and airport operations – where experienced personnel fulfill tasks for which they are over-qualified and supervisors, instructors, auditors and examiners may be observing or playing and active role. Similarly, a generally inexperienced team member may be highly valued for a specific skill, and even employed solely for this reason; other team members can then easily over-estimate this person’s capabilities through generalisation and association.
Whenever there is a lack of clarity in roles, responsibilities and capabilities, it is likely that decisions and actions will not be taken effectively; some team members may not participate when expected, and other team members may act independently towards different goals.
Conformity is a word often used to describe certain situations in which team members who could have contributed useful safety information, at the time, failed to do so. Authority gradients can play a key role in facilitating attitudes of conformity amongst team members.
- Obedience – this is often in response to a perceived authority, or in reaction to an authoritarian leader (steep gradient).
- Majority Rule – going along with others’ views rather than voicing one’s own. This may be in response to an overly democratic style of leadership (shallow gradient) or because it’s easier than speaking up (steep gradient).
- Desire to please – or, perhaps more terrifying is the fear of being ridiculed, shamed or even ostracised from the team. This can occur in both steep and shallow authority gradient environments.
Modern globally accepted crew resource management (CRM), team resource management (TRM) and Human Factors training programmes provide leaders with the tools to invite feedback, ideas and challenges to their own decisions and performance - without becoming defensive and critical. These same programmes encourage junior team members to challenge others with confidence, including senior members, openly, assertively and early to help reduce risk.
Both of these aspects may run counterintuitively to various cultural norms - national, racial, religious, tribal etc. In many cultures deference is often given to age, rank, seniority, role, caste etc and, if brought into the workplace, this can create ineffective use of team, crew and group resources. It is therefore important for safety critical workers to undertake cultural diversity awareness training, and for organisations to adopt effective strategies to reduce associated risks.
Balance and Flexibility
Most teams require some degree of authority gradient, otherwise roles will become blurred and decisions will not be made in a timely fashion. The most effective leaders are those that consciously establish a command hierarchy, which is appropriate to the task at hand, and the qualification and experience levels of team members. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Shallow gradients are good for team-building and generating solutions when either the nature of the problem is unclear or where the remedy is neither routine nor obvious. Steep gradients may be appropriate in a crisis, where immediate action is required, despite the risk to team harmony.
Reducing the Risks
Reducing the risks that arise from inappropriate authority gradients is a matter of raising awareness, learning some simple skills, practicing those skills whilst under training and applying those skills during routine and emergency operations. It is also essential, after each of these stages, to openly discuss any issues that have arisen and to feed these back into the training programme.
Team leaders must be capable of creating a working climate where junior team members are confident enough to raise concerns, question decisions and also offer solutions. This requires the development of a flexible and professional leadership style based on clear communication and encouragement.
Junior team members need to learn assertiveness techniques to provide them with the confidence to question authority and play a full part in the team task.
Appropriate and comprehensive pre-task briefings are essential to clarify roles, responsibilities, capabilities, limitations and boundaries, both in normal and abnormal conditions. These may need to be reinforced during situational briefings such as pre-take-off and top of descent.
Accidents and Incidents
Events in the SKYbrary database which include Authority Gradient as a contributory factor:
On 2 May 2016, a Boeing 737-800 veered off the 2,500 metre-long landing runway near its end at speed following a night non-precision approach flown by the Captain. It then stopped on grass having sustained damage to both the left engine and landing gear. The Investigation noted that a significant but allowable tailwind component had been present at touchdown and found that the approach had been unstable, the approach and touchdown speeds excessive and that touchdown had occurred beyond the touchdown zone after applicable operating procedures had been comprehensively ignored in the presence of a steep authority and experience gradient.
On 2 February 2013, an ATR 72-500 bounced repeatedly when making a night landing at Rome Fiumicino which, in the presence of dual control inputs causing a pitch disconnect, resulted in complete detachment of the landing gear and a veer off before stopping. The accident was attributed to uncharacteristic mishandling by the type experienced Captain in the presence of ineffective crew resource management because of an extremely steep authority gradient resulting from a very significant difference in flight time on the aircraft type (9607 hours / 14 hours). The Investigation attributed an unacceptable delay in the rescue services’ response to managerial incompetence.
On 7 August 2020, a Boeing 737-800 making its second attempt to land at Calicut off a night ILS approach with a significant tailwind component became unstabilised and touched down approximately half way down the 2,700 metre-long wet table top runway and departed the end of it at 85 knots before continuing through the RESA and a fence and then dropping sharply onto a road. This caused the fuselage to separate into three pieces with 97 of the 190 occupants including both pilots being fatally or seriously injured and 34 others sustaining minor injuries. Significant fuel spillage occurred but there was no fire.
On 14 October 2019, a Sikorsky S92A manoeuvring below low cloud in poor daylight visibility in an unsuccessful attempt to locate the intended private landing site flew north towards rising ground approximately ¾ mile east of it, coming within a recorded 28 feet above terrain near to occupied houses before making an emergency climb and over-torqing the engines followed by an unstable but successful second approach. The Investigation found relevant operator procedures absent or ineffective, an intention by the management pilot in command to reach the landing site despite conditions and uncertainty about the applicable regulatory context for the flight.
On 24 February 2020, the crew of a Fairchild SA-227 departing Dryden lost directional control and the aircraft veered off the side of the runway soon after beginning its takeoff roll with the subsequent impact with a frozen snow bank causing significant damage to the aircraft. The Investigation found that takeoff had been commenced with the right propeller still on the start locks after failure to follow two separate normal procedures during what was the very inexperienced First Officer’s first day of line training after joining the operator and obtaining a type rating.
On 2 September 2019, a Boeing 777-300 failed to continue climbing following a night takeoff from Shanghai when the autopilot was quickly engaged. When it began to descend, inaction after several EGPWS DON’T SINK Alerts was followed by an EGPWS ‘PULL UP’ Warning. Recovery then followed but only after autopilot re-engagement led to another descent did the crew recognise that a single character FMS data input error was the cause. The Investigation was concerned that both pilots simultaneously lost situational awareness of the low aircraft altitude during the event and noted both procedural non-compliance and sub-optimal crew interaction.
On 13 September 2016, a Boeing 737-300 made an unstabilised approach to Wamena and shortly after an EGPWS ‘PULL UP’ warning due to the high rate of descent, a very hard landing resulted in collapse of the main landing gear, loss of directional control and a lateral runway excursion. The Investigation found that the approach had been carried out with both the cloudbase and visibility below the operator-specified minima and noted that the Captain had ignored a delayed go around suggestion from the First Officer because he was confident he could land safely as the two aircraft ahead had done.
On 30 September 2017, an Airbus A320 touched down late after an ILS approach to runway 32 at Sylt with a significant tailwind component being reported and failed to stop before overrunning the end of the runway and subsequently stopped on grass 80 metres beyond it. The Investigation noted that the calculated required landing distance was close to the landing distance available, the actual approach speed was 20 knots above the calculated one and that the aircraft had floated in the flare above a wet runway. It was concluded that the runway excursion was attributable to non-performance of a go-around.
On 29 January 2015, a Boeing 737-800 crew attempting to fly an NDB approach to Bergerac, with prior awareness that it would be necessary because of pre-notified ILS and DME unavailability, descended below 800 feet agl in IMC until an almost 1000 feet per minute descent when still over 8 nm from the runway threshold triggered an EGPWS ‘TERRAIN PULL UP’ warning and the simultaneous initiation of a go-around. The Investigation found that the PF First Officer was unfamiliar with NDB approaches but had not advised the Captain which resulted in confusion and loss of situational awareness by both pilots.
On 22 August 2019, the left engine of a Boeing 737-800 failed for unknown reasons soon after reaching planned cruise level of FL360 twenty minutes after departing Samos, Greece and two attempted relights during and after descent to FL240 were unsuccessful. Instead of diverting to the nearest suitable airport as required by applicable procedures, the management pilot in command did not declare single engine operation and completed the planned flight to Prague, declaring a PAN to ATC only on entering Czech airspace. The Investigation noted that engine failure was due to fuel starvation after failure of the engine fuel pump.
On 5 August 2019, a Cessa 560XLS touched down in runway undershot at Aarhus whilst making a night ILS approach there and damage sustained when it collided with parts of the ILS LOC antenna caused a fuel leak which after injury-free evacuation of the occupants then ignited destroying most of the aircraft. The Investigation attributed the accident to the Captain’s decision to intentionally fly below the ILS glideslope in order to touch down at the threshold and to the disabling of the EGWPS alerting function in the presence of a steep authority gradient, procedural non-compliance and poor CRM.
On 10 April 2018, a Boeing 737-800 crew making a night takeoff from Brasilia did not see a small aircraft which had just landed on the same runway until it appeared in the landing lights with rotation imminent. After immediately setting maximum thrust and rotating abruptly, the 737 just cleared the other aircraft, an Embraer 110 whose occupants were aware of a large aircraft passing very low overhead whilst their aircraft was still on the runway. The Investigation attributed the conflict primarily to controller use of non-standard phraseology and the absence of unobstructed runway visibility from the TWR.
On 7 February 2018, a Boeing 737-800 experienced an airspeed mismatch during takeoff on a post maintenance positioning flight but having identified the faulty system by reference to the standby instrumentation, the intended flight was completed without further event. After the recorded defect was then signed off as “no fault found” after a failure to follow the applicable fault-finding procedure, the same happened on the next (revenue) flight but with an air turnback made. The Investigation found that the faulty sensor had been fitted at build three earlier with a contaminated component which had slowly caused sensor malfunction to develop.
On 11 March 2018 an Unreliable Speed Alert occurred on a Bombardier Challenger, the Captain’s airspeed increasing whilst the First Officer’s decreased. The First Officer attempted to commence the corresponding drill but the Captain’s interruptions prevented this and a (false) overspeed warning followed. The Captain’s response to both alerts was to reduce thrust which led to a Stall Warning followed, after no response, by stick pusher activation which was repeatedly opposed by the Captain despite calls to stop from the First Officer. The stalled condition continued for almost five minutes until a 30,000 feet descent was terminated by terrain impact.
On 27 February 2016, an Airbus A320 making an into-sun visual approach to Jaipur in hazy conditions lined up on a road parallel to the intended landing runway and continued descent until an EGPWS ‘TOO LOW TERRAIN’ Alert occurred at 200 feet agl upon which a go-around was initiated. The Investigation found that although the First Officer had gained visual reference with both road and runway at 500 feet agl, the Captain had seen only the road and continued asking the First Officer to continue descent towards it despite the First Officer’s attempts to alert him to his error.