With any job, employees are going to make mistakes, the likes of which usually don't cost much more than some lost time, money, or the goodwill of a customer. But in the case of air traffic controllers, seemingly minor mistakes could be catastrophically deadly.
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One such incident happened last month in San Francisco when an incoming flight narrowly missed a departing one on the runway. Thankfully, the incident didn't end in the death or injury of any passengers, an outcome thought to be in part thanks to the unique training air traffic controllers get, and the culture surrounding their job. In an article this past weekend, Quartz suggests a lot of managers could potentially take something away from how the profession manages its employees:
Proper Vetting and Training
Air traffic controllers are vetted before they start the job to ensure they can handle the pressure of the job, which often involves life-or-death situations. The goal is to hire people who have an above-average ability to handle high-stress decisions. They're also heavily trained through simulations before they start where they're taught how to remain calm and have "clarity of thought" during high-pressure situations.
Offer Support, Not Punishment, After a Mistake
In the air traffic control world, the response to a screw-up is typically an increase in training, rather than "shaming", outright punishment, or the implication that you're going to lose your job. Mistakes are noted, but more to ensure that they're not part of a larger trend in the workplace as a whole. If a lot of people are making the same mistake, then that points to a bigger issue than just simple human error. However, the lack of punishment means that employees feel, in general, a bit more at ease at work.
Worrying that your job is on the line can impact how you make decisions, and whether or not you're willing to come forward when mistakes do happen. You're more likely to try and cover things up rather than fix them, which can just lead to more issues. By removing the element of fear from the equation, employees feel safer at work, and in turn passengers on the planes they're directing are safer as well since problems are highlighted and corrected rather than pushed under the rug.
That's not to say that intentional and negligent things go without punishment. However, there's a general understanding that mistakes happen, and the focus should be on preventing them moving forward, rather than dwelling on a mishap.
Owning Up To Errors
When people admit their mistakes and get training on how to correct them in the future, everyone fares better. No one wants to admit that they're the screw-up in a situation, but if the company has a culture of admitting fault and correcting mistakes, then employees will feel more empowered to bring up mistakes they make and look for solutions, and others will feel like they can point out a colleague's mistake without feeling like they're throwing that person under the bus.
In the case of that air controller story, another employee pointed out the error "those planes are too close together", and the issue was corrected. When employees feel empowered to raise questions, everyone wins.