Operatives within safety critical industries can be faced with situations in which they need to say “no”. Time-pressure, deadlines, and productivity goals are all factors that can lead to such dilemmas. SCT’s Mario Pierobon reports on how organisations can address this challenge, and in part two of two, looks at operative assertiveness.

In the first part of this two-part story on training to say “no” we looked at safety culture as a necessary precondition, in this second part we shall look at the need for operatives to develop assertiveness.

What Assertiveness Is

The need for assertive behaviour has been sharply highlighted in aviation accident analysis and simulator observations which revealed the reluctance of co-pilots to challenge captains’ authority even when they had made a poor decision or an actual error, states Rhona H. Flin in a 1995 paper entitled ‘Crew resource management for teams in the offshore oil industry’ published in the Journal of European Industrial Training[i].

“This was compounded by an attitude held by some captains that it was not the co-pilot’s place to question their decisions,” she says. “The need for assertive behaviour is greatest where team members are not of equivalent status and the more junior or lower status members do not feel comfortable questioning the instructions of the leader.”

The relationship between air crew members has evolved over time. In the early years of commercial aviation, the pilots overwhelmingly came from the military services where they had flown in a one or two-person cockpit. Along with the pilots came the military pilot attitude, observes Billye Nipper in a 2016 document entitled ‘Communication Issues between the Crew and Cockpit: Has CRM Training been Successful?’[ii]. “As the captain of the aircraft the pilot was considered ‘god’ and his decisions were always the ‘right’ ones. There was little, if any, input from the other pilots because they assumed the captain knew what he was doing,” he says.

Crew Resource Management (CRM) Training

Assertiveness is one of the topics covered as part of CRM training. CRM involves enhancing team members’ understanding of human performance, in particular the social and cognitive aspects of effective teamwork and good decision making, according to Flin. “This training is designed to reduce operational errors which could cause an accident, and to give crews additional skills to deal with problems if they are faced with an emergency.”[iii]

As to assertiveness in CRM training, relevance is given to the impact of different behaviour styles on oneself and on others. CRM training participants are encouraged to discuss situations they had experienced in relation to different styles of behaviour and their outcome, according to Flin[iv].

While it is important to be assertive when an immediate intervention is required, assertive communication is not normally a first choice, observes the UK Civil Aviation Authority in its ‘Flight-crew human factors handbook’ (CAP 737)[v]. “This is because assertive communications can carry a risk of creating a difficult flight deck dynamic and adding to a problem. This is something that many pilots understand implicitly, but would prefer not to admit,” the UK CAA says. “Even when done perfectly well with use of standard phraseology, a receiver of an assertion might see it as undermining their authority.”

The first comprehensive US CRM programme was initiated by United Airlines in 1981, according to Robert L. Helmreich, Ashleigh C. Merritt, and John A. Wilhelm in a 1999 paper entitled ‘The Evolution of Crew Resource Management Training in Commercial Aviation’ published in The International Journal of Aviation Psychology[vi]. “The training was developed with the aid of consultants who had developed training programs for corporations trying to enhance managerial effectiveness,” they say.

As part of the integration of CRM, several airlines have begun to proceduralise the concepts involved by adding specific behaviours to their checklists, observe Helmreich et al. “The goal is to ensure that decisions and actions are informed by consideration of ‘bottom lines’ and that the basics of CRM are observed, particularly in nonstandard situations,” they say. “Error is an inevitable result of the natural limitations of human performance and the function of complex systems. CRM is one of an array of tools that organizations can use to manage error.”[vii]

CRM is widely used by the international aviation industry, typically taking the form of three-day training courses and subsequent monitoring of CRM skills during simulator flights (line-oriented flight training – LOFT), affirms Flin. “LOFT consists in providing the organisation with a means of creating conditions requiring the practice of effective crew co-ordination to resolve complex emergency situations," she says.[viii]

Summing Up

In order for operatives to be able to say ‘no’ to undue pressure, it is necessary not only that a generative safety culture be developed in the context where they work, but also that they develop the soft skill of assertiveness. This can be developed through CRM training and reinforced in line training.


[i] Rhona H. Flin in Crew resource management for teams in the offshore oil industry, JOURNAL OF EUROPEAN INDUSTRIAL TRAINING 19,9, https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/03090599510096617/full/pdf?title=crew-resource-management-for-teams-in-the-offshore-oil-industry
[ii] Billye Janiece Nipper in ‘Communication Issues between the Crew and Cockpit: Has CRM Training been Successful?’, May 2016 DOI:10.13140/RG.2.1.3063.8962
[iii] Flin
[iv] Ibid
[v] UK CAA (2014) ‘Flight-crew human factors handbook (CAP 737)
[vi] Robert L. Helmreich, Ashleigh C. Merritt & John A. Wilhelm (1999) The Evolution of Crew Resource Management Training in Commercial Aviation, The International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 9:1, 19-32, DOI: 10.1207/s15327108ijap0901_2
[vii] Ibid
[viii] Flin