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Pre-Flight, TEAM

TEAM Assessment: The problem with the Problem.

Every journey begins with the discovery of self. Situational awareness is important. Not to be confused with sympathy – possessing the ability to listen effectively and accurately enough to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. This is not necessarily to agree with them, but to truly understand the situation from their point-of-view in order to improve communication, problemsolving, and trust.Self-awareness is crucial.

The safety of every flight relies on the necessary knowledge of a multitude of different data, and the mastery of very demanding skills. But without the knowledge and mastery of one’s own limits, emotions and mental state – the core foundation of safety is put in jeopardy.

Every pilot I know has one thing in common: ego. It’s a well known fact – and if you are a pilot or work with pilots or even just happen to KNOW a pilot… you know I’m right! Be it a little or a lot, it is an part of who we are. It makes us accomplish brilliant things just as much as stupid – sometimes dangerous things. One funny thing I found about this particular fact however, is that the size of the ego is usually inversely proportional to the size of a pilot’s experience.

This all became very clear to me one day. It actually literally got pounded into me. From the bottom of my seat. Hard to forget such a lesson!

Still a fledging first officer on a beautiful state of the art airplane, with a powerful engine an lots of fun to offer, I was having the time of my life. The PC12 was an amazing aircraft to fly – even more so when you had the luxury of a clear VFR summer day to streak around the skies with no other care in the world. It was on such a day that we launched on a medevac call. Flying this leg, I leisurely took the airplane off the ground, enjoying the bright skies and the expectation of a few fun hours of flying. However, our secondary radio came alive just as we were leaving our home base airport’s zone: “796, this is dispatch. Be advised the call is cancelled. Please return to base.”

Bummer! Here goes my tanning session at Flight Level 250! Cancelling our IFR flight plan with center, we proceeded to turn around and prepare for landing. As we came in view of the field, my captain offered me a challenge. You know! It starts like “I bet you can’t…”. In this case, it finished with “land it RIGHT ON the numbers.” Wait, what? Was he smoking something? On such a beautiful day, with almost no wind and a light aircraft to maneuver around! Would I ever show him! Lesson #1… never tell a pilot “I bet you can’t” – especially if you really have a doubt he actually CAN! This being said, I took great care in my approach. Lining up the airplane just perfectly with the centerline, I started my descent on profile for the proposed touch down zone. However, I quickly realized that the few trees on short final for the runway would force me to keep a slightly higher descent profile than planned. Nonetheless, pursuing the challenge and trying to keep my ego safe, I continued without a remark. Just before passing over the threshold, with clearly too much height left to lose to execute the challenge, my captain exclaimed: “Not going to make it!” That’s right, rub it in! And so in a last ditch effort to save face, I let my nose down slightly to mitigate the flaring distance and touch down as close as possible to the target. What a mistake! Already coming in with a faster rate of descent due to the higher angle, that last decision set the aircraft on the runway with more force than I had ever felt. Following a VERY positive contact with the pavement, we found ourselves airborne again for a second, before I finally put the airplane back on the runway – with more care this time. Although I had a very forgiving crew and captain, I guaranty you I did not hear the end of this for months.

However, with the bad decision came some invaluable experience. I learned how vulnerable we are to peer pressure (or even ATC, management, or such) and how I react to people and stimuli around me. I also learned to place boundaries on my skill levels, and not exceed them unless I am in a training environment. Most of all, it really set the foundation for my understanding of Experience and the roles of emotional intelligence (EQ) in a crew environment.

Experience can be defined in many ways. The universal definition of experience could be simply put this way: “Experience leads to good decisions. Bad decisions lead to experience.” Makes sense, no?  Another way to define experience could be: “A discovery of one’s skills levels and ability to deal with stress and/or interpersonal relations.”

So how does this all tie in together? How does this help us deal with problems in the cockpit in a safer or better way? Well, as one of my favorite Captains of all time put it:

“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your ATTITUDE about the problem. Do you understand?” – Capt. Jack Sparrow

The first step to solving – or avoiding a problem – starts with you. Or Me. It is crucial to understand here that in order for anybody to be able to solve a problem, he or she must first recognize it, and how he or she is affected by it. Once that is done, setting priorities and remedial actions becomes a lot easier. Emotional Intelligence allows us to more clearly understand our relation and interaction with the problems as they become apparent, and thus more effectively deal with them. Pilots are always trained to understand and deal with any problem that might arise with their airplanes, but seldom trained to understand the most complex machine: themselves. Safety can only be attained by combining proper training on both parts, in order to perform under diverse and/or adverse conditions.

“Emotional Intelligence is a way of recognizing, understanding, and choosing how we think, feel, and act. It shapes our interactions with others and our understanding of ourselves. It defines how and what we learn; it allows us to set priorities; it determines the majority of our daily actions.” (From Handle With Care: Emotional Intelligence Activity Book, Freedman et al.)

There are five basic competencies that comprise the field of Emotional Intelligence. The first three are Intra-personal: they are invisible to others and occur inside of us. The last two are inter-personal: they occur between us and other people and are observable in our behavior. The better developed your intra-personal skills, the easier it is to demonstrate your inter-personal skills. (Source: byronstock.com)

Intrapersonal competencies:

  • Emotional Self-Awareness – Having the skill to focus your attention on your emotional state – being aware, in-the-moment, of what you’re feeling. Are you stressed, excited, worried, or angry? Given that information about your emotional state, what should (or shouldn’t) you do or say next? Use that information to help you make effective decisions to achieve better outcomes.

By being able to decipher one’s emotional state also enables the person to clearly understand how their feelings affect their performance. Having established an accurate self-assessment, a person will then be able to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. Correct analysis of weaknesses will then enable learning from the mistakes or experience, and open the person to constructive criticism, different perspectives and self-development.

Confidence then becomes a natural by product of self-awareness. Being able to quickly assess their own ability to deal with any given situation, a pilot then gains the ability to project a stronger “presence” on the flight deck and in the team. They become more decisive under pressure and are also able to confidently voice options or opinions which  might not always be “popular”.

However, once the line is crossed to over-confidence, this ability can quickly become a threat to the team. Somebody who is too self-assured will tend to take rash decisions, not listen to others’ opinions and react on a whim without thinking through the possible negative outcomes of some actions. You know, the good old “God Complex”… or what was it? Ego?

  • Emotional Self-Regulation – Self-regulation is about being able to manage disruptive emotions or impulses. The proverbial “cool-headed” composure, where a pilot can remain positive and focused, enabling him think clearly through demanding and stressful moments.

Once a person has developed the skills to establish mastery over their own emotional state, they can then become a trusted and integral part of the team. Not only in situational management but also by demonstrating integrity and ethical behavior.

They also become stronger, reliable leaders who can be trusted to take the right decision, even if it’s not the popular one, or confront members of the team who are being dysfunctional or disruptive to the safety of the operation.

Being able to understand and control one’s emotions also allows a team member to take responsibility for their own actions and decisions. This allows for a much deeper accountability process in the command hierarchy as well as peer-to-peer. It pushes the individual to meet their goals and commitments – safety and performance included.

Finally, a confident team member also becomes a tremendous asset to the team, as they now are able to adapt much more rapidly and seamlessly to new challenges. Always in control of themselves, any problem that might arise then becomes an opportunity to evolve, adapt or innovate – while managing stress and risk with always safety  and performance in clear focus.

Be careful not to become jaded or unresponsive in times of need. Action is more often than not required to rectify or enhance or situation, and being too “calm” in the face of necessity would slow down your team and/or jeopardize safety when swift response is needed. Always keep an open and critical mind on every action, results and possible outcomes.

  • Emotional Self-Motivation – This is the key, final ability which binds together the intrapersonal skills. It is about using your emotions to be positive, optimistic, confident, and persistent rather than negative, pessimistic and second-guessing yourself and your decisions.

Being able to recognize and act upon one’s strengthts and weaknesses, becoming confident in their own abilities to assess and manage situations enable pilots and other team members to truly acheive targeted performance and even go beyond set goals (safety, schedule, customer service, etc).

Evolving from a purely reactionary standpoint to an action-based mindframe, a pilot is now able to set higher standards for the operation and lead the team safely towards an increased productivity output without compromising their ability to deal with unforseen circumstances. The increased efficiency of the individual and the team allows for better cohesion in stressful environments, as well as increased cognitive ability to gather and compile information – leading to better decision making – in turn mitigating risks and reducing “bad experiences”. It turns the individual(s) into a results-oriented operation, able to always evolve and learn in order to keep safety and performance at their peak.

With clear goals or target performance in mind, the individual or team is now ready to play an integral part in the success of the mission. Commitment becomes a natural derivate of this mindframe, pushing the person or team to accept self or group sacrifies in order to achieve their mission. From commitment stems initiative, providing results beyond the mission’s goals and opening doors to opportunities otherwise overseen. From a single goal or set of goals (a successful flight for example), the team now becomes empowered with a vision and desire to pursue and achieve success outside of their “usual” duties, learning to manage situations and missions according to the company’s global mission rather than the day to day set of normal operations.

A treacherous pitfal to be mindful of, however, is an overemphasis on target achievement rather than safety or other higher considerations. An on-time performance, for example, should never have more priority than the safe operation of the aircraft according to set regulations and common sense. Don’t let your “sense of duty” jeopardize the life or well-being of those around you as well as yourself. If you are not the leader of the team, but recognize this situation, use the proper communication style as well as leadership style to help refocus the leader and team towards safety first, then targeted performance after.

Interpersonal competencies:

  • Social Awareness – The ability to empathise, and recognize the differences and diversity of the team or customers.

Empathy is the first and most basic social skill needed to acheive social awareness. Not to be confused with sympathy – possessing the ability to listen effectively and accurately enough to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. This is not necessarily to agree with them, but to truly understand the situation from their point-of-view in order to improve communication, problemsolving, and trust.

When able to properly empathise, individual become skilled at anticipiating and recognizing the needs of those around them. Be it the needs of the team, or the needs of the customers, this provides a tremendous asset to the team as they are now equipped to foresee possible problems which might arise and deal with them before they become a threat to the safety or targetted goal of the mission. When acting with initiative, true progress can be made towards a better customer experience or positive outcome for the team’s success.

A correct understanding of the people around one’s self also provides opportunities for mentoring and personal growth. When a leader is able to recognize a weakness or a potential for growth in an individual or the team, he or she is then able to foster that potential or address that weakness more easily, therefore impacting the potential of the whole team in a positive way.

After recognizing the potential in the individuals of the team, the leader is then able to focus and leverage on their diversity: assigning tasks based on individual strengths, hence reinforcing the ability of the team to face challenges, respond to needs, and achieve goals.

  • Social skills – Through communication and action, demonstrate the ability to set a positive tone of cooperation no matter how difficult the situation or conversation and having other’s best interests in mind while focusing on achieving goals to create positive outcomes.

To set the tone, the individuals of the team – and especially the team leader – must become skilled commicators. By communicating clearly and concisely their needs, problems, or ideas, team members enable the leader or the team as a whole to address and prioritize information in order to achieve the best outcome possible.  Open communication fosters cooperation, which in turns provides the tools to reach the set goals and complete the given mission.

In turn, by effectively communicating goals or expectations, leaders gain the ability to insipire their team and enhance cohesion and cooperation, becoming catalysts for a shared vision or mission.

A skilled communicator also becomes better equipped to manage conflict resolution. While always promoting cooperation, they can recognize potential conflicts or defuse tense relations within the team by opening the communication and fostering collaboration towards a common goal, mission or vision – managing the balance between the focus on task and attention to stakeholder (internal or external) relations.

Finally, able communicators in the team become an important asset, providing the “bond” between members and driving the group synergy to achieve maximum potential and reach any given objective and challenges.


The importance of a well-balanced, emotionaly aware and socially skilled person quickly becomes apparent when put in a team scenario. Any team member – including the leaders – have the potential to either become a problem or an asset. By understanding Emotional Intelligence (EiQ), a leader is able to assess the threat level or error potential of a team through the underlaying intrapersonal traits of an individual or the interpersonal traits of the team. By doing so, you are then able to take corrective action before anything happens, thus reducing the margin of error and increasing the safety level of any operation as well as the success level of any mission or given goal.

Having the ability to prepare and train yourself and your team to understand, manage and enhance the individual or group EiQ level will deeply impact the team’s ability to manage challenges, problems or even daily operational goals. It will also provide the ability to gain experience in a much more linear way, reducing the necessary amount of risk involved to progress – in other words, tame the “learning curve” – and increasing the reliability of each individual.

Although this first glance at EiQ does not offer much more than a cursory approach to its inner workings and underlaying operational importance, it is the very basis of every professional environment. Before learning professional skills, before even gaining general or technical knowldge, understanding and managing the true nature of one self and the human machine will provide a lasting foundation to any operation or team.



About jdmarcellin

Professional pilot for a major Canadian operator. Interested in helping make a better world for all my fellow pilots out there. Passionate of aviation and all things that fly. Caution: I speak my mind loud and clear! All views are my own.

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