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‘Behavioral Drift’ Threatens the Safety of Flight Operations

September 9, 2013

NBAA Flight Plan podcast about the importance of maintaining professionalism.

When the NBAA Safety Committee put together its list of Top 10 safety concerns earlier this year, “professionalism” made the list. Asked to define potential threats to professionalism, committee member and CitationAir Vice President for Safety Bill Grimes called it “behavioral drift.”

“In aviation, we all have a very defined set of procedures,” he explained. “These are designed to enhance predictability and reduce variability. But there are influences that cause us to drift away: Work-arounds, risk tolerance – a sense that what was an unacceptable risk is now acceptable. All that leads us to believe we’re in a safe place when we’re not.”

Although sometimes barely perceptible, deteriorating professionalism can affect all aspects of an aviation organization, Grimes warned.

“As the established norms of an organization are eroded away, they’re replaced by work-arounds that eventually set new standards. People start cutting corners to get the job done,” he said.

One of the most effective ways to combat behavioral drift, according to Grimes, is to establish a performance management system, akin to the safety management systems that are being adopted more and more within business aviation.

“The performance management system looks at the policies and procedures an organization has in place and how they are being followed at a snapshot in time,” he said.

Another aspect of the performance management system is gauging the perceptions of both managers and employees.

“As a manager, it causes you to look in the mirror and see what you accept. You’re the boss, you’re the example, so if you’re cutting corners, what will your staff do when you’re not around?”

Companies with highly evolved safety cultures are resilient in the face of behavioral drift, Grimes said. They become self-correcting at every level.

“To borrow a phrase from the TSA, ‘If you see something, say something.’ If someone isn’t following procedure or is taking short-cuts, we all have an obligation to speak up – not in a destructive manner, but in a way that brings the offender back to the center-line,” he said.

Grimes listed post-flight debriefings with crew and support staff as an example of a safety culture where everyone helps each other maintain professionalism. It is the role of management to help set that tone of open dialogue.

“I’ve looked at more than 1,500 ASAP [aviation safety action program] reports in the past five years, and one thing that stands out as a significant cause of behavioral drift is time compression,” Grimes said. “For instance, the passengers may show up early. This seems to trigger all new anxiety levels that can lead to taking short cuts. The sign of a real professional is not allowing these external pressures to affect your normal process for completing a task safely. In a sense, we should have the mindset that we are paid to know when to say ‘no’ to the boss or passengers when conditions merit it.”

To foster this level of professionalism, recognize team members when they exhibit professionalism.

“Let them know,” Grimes suggested. “Give them positive feedback and they’ll do more of it. We should all strive to encourage more safe behaviors in the work environment and the best way to accomplish this is through positive feedback.”