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Interpersonal conflict within a group of aviation professionals potentially threatens operational safety of flight. Experience proves this even if the sponsoring organisation cautions the group to “function first as effective team members” while engaged in their project.
In the worst case, the outcome of unresolved or unreported conflict can be catastrophic failures by the work group or by the organisation. In the best case, interpersonal conflict can be anticipated and avoided, or quickly resolved using the framework of group dynamics theory — before escalating to the point of harm.
Courses in group dynamics — drawing expertise from fields like applied psychology and aviation human factors — have helped since the late 1990s to educate European executive managers, group leaders and team members. Typical course content clarifies the potential risk from interpersonal conflict, including preventive measures and process documentation.
In 2015, EUROCONTROL urged air navigation service providers (ANSPs) to apply group dynamics theories this way: “In order for an ANSP to meet its primary obligation of providing safe services, it is necessary to build good communication inside the organisation and an atmosphere of cooperation. This atmosphere has embedded attributes, which are inherent in the activities of all actors and include: consistency; clarity of purpose and accountability; an acceptance of each actor’s roles and responsibilities; sufficient resources; mutual trust and confidence yet encouragement to express doubts and worries; and a shared view of the objectives set to deliver positive outcomes.”
Group dynamics — SKYbrary uses this term to describe a range of constructive and problematic interactions among team members within a subdivision (group) of an organisation. Practitioners consider, for example, evidence of preferable ways for:
- individuals to interact effectively with one another in the interest of safety;
- working groups to interact with other subdivisions of the organisation; and,
- working groups to exert a positive influence on the entire organisation’s safety performance.
Human performance — Regarding air traffic management (ATM), EUROCONTROL means the performance of jobs, tasks and activities by operational personnel — individually and together — within any ANSP. EUROCONTROL adds, “We support the achievement of an effective, efficient and safe ATM system while reconciling organisational objectives and staff needs in complex work systems.”
Team resource management (TRM) — EUROCONTROL means developing positive attitudes and behaviours toward teamwork skills and human performance in ATC, helping to minimise the impact of teamwork-related errors within the ATM system. Intended benefits for these stakeholders are:
- reduced teamwork-related incidents;
- enhanced task efficiency;
- improved use of staff resources;
- enhanced continuity and stability of teamwork in ATM;
- enhanced sense of working as a part of a larger and more efficient team; and,
- increased job satisfaction.
In 2004, EUROCONTROL released a description of its TRM initiative, acknowledging that within the previous few years, several other European ATM organisations had either implemented TRM in their operational environment or had begun that process. As of its 2018 TRM implementation report, 70 percent of European ANSPs, responding to a EUROCONTROL survey, said that they had implemented TRM. About 44 percent of non-responding European ANSPs were known otherwise to have begun TRM implementation.
The 2004 description alludes to its original interest in the interpersonal-conflict aspect of group dynamics, stating, “In a typical TRM exercise, participants are challenged to take a stand and maintain their point of view by reasoning, even though others see things differently. This forces the participants to really think about their own opinion, in light of other views and ideas. … [An exercise] question is likely to raise many different opinions, some of which may be conflicting. It is this difference that opens the door to constructive discussion; when participants realise that there is no single right answer to the question, that they are on their way to work as a proper team.”
One air traffic controller’s feedback in 2004 said, “The real point to note is that TRM is trying to change a culture, make people aware of their own behaviour and the impact that this has on their colleagues.”
Relation to Aviation Human Factors
By exploring hypothetical factors (i.e., listed below) and analysing dysfunctional experiences of real teams in training, ANSP team members learn to recognise how interpersonal conflict occurs and distracts safety teams. Conflicts might reflect:
- Rejecting facts, analyses and consensus viewpoints;
- Losing sight of strategic goals and high-level perspective;
- Wasting time on off-topic issues that impede progress;
- Causing breakdowns in trust and communication (e.g., senior managers vs. controllers);
- Misjudging motivations of individuals or interest groups;
- Pursuing inappropriate self-interest or demanding recognition;
- Behaving inflexibly when consensus is required; and/or,
- Being unwilling to listen to the reasoning of others.
In summary, in ANSPs or other aviation organisations, safety practitioners should be alert to the threat of interpersonal conflicts affecting flight operations risk management in the long term. Practitioners also should be explicitly directed by their organisation’s executive leadership to report conflicts and impasses in group discussions, enabling the organisation to fully address the situation.
A related way to avoid compromising operational safety is to counteract the effect of undue peer pressure whenever groups struggle with interpersonal conflicts. Again, early identification prevents these conflicts from escalating, being resolved improperly or being ignored or concealed. Ultimately, adhering to group dynamics principles enables practitioners to manage safety threats and reduce risk of operational errors.
Accidents and Incidents
- MD87 / C525, Milan Linate, 2001 — On 8th October 2001, an SAS MD-87 taking off as cleared from Milan Linate in thick fog collided at high speed with a German-operated Cessna Citation which had failed to follow its taxi clearance and unknown to ATC had eventually crossed a lit red stop bar and entered the active runway just as the MD-87 was reaching the same point. This accident investigation prompted EUROCONTROL to form a high-level group (Action Group for Safety) that examined existing air traffic control procedures and standards, and in turn led to European guidance on implementing TRM and enhanced awareness of group dynamics and other aviation human factors.
- T154 / B752, en-route, Uberlingen Germany, 2002 — On 1st July 2002, a Russian-operated Tu154 on a passenger flight collided at night with a cargo Boeing 757-200 over Überlingen, Germany with the consequent loss of control of both aircraft and the death of all occupants. The collision occurred after an ATC control lapse had led to a conflict which generated coordinated TCAS RAs which the B757 followed but the TU-154, in the presence of a conflicting ATC instruction, did not. As above, this accident investigation led to European guidance on implementing TRM and enhanced awareness of group dynamics and other aviation human factors.
- “EUROCONTROL Guidelines for TRM Good Practices,” EUROCONTROL, 18 March 2015.
- Team Resource Management booklet, EUROCONTROL, 2004.
- “Guidelines for Developing and Implementing Team Resource Management,” 15 March 1996.