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Can you have too much CRM?

Pilots spend a lot of time learning about and mastering the art of crew resource management (CRM) and threat and error management (TEM). With time and practice, it becomes pretty easy to put these tools to use and maximize safety while minimizing risks. Used properly, communication is enhanced, it is more effective, more inclusive, and less intimidating, especially for new or young members of a crew.

But, can CRM ever be too easy? Can it become so easy that it ends up being harder again? I thought of this on a recent trip because I was flying with another pilot who is a good friend of mine, and we have flown together more times than we can count. We know each other well, and we always look forward to flying together, which for a while, was averaging at least once a month.

When we do our pre-flight brief, we are expected to address any possible threats, and I once jokingly said, “You and I are flying together.” That was an epiphany for both of us, and now we mention that every time. As the first officer, I know what he expects and wants to make his job easier, and as the captain, he knows that he can trust me to take care of a lot of little details that others may skip. When something comes up, it is often as though we are reading each other’s minds. This can be great, because it makes everything effortless.

But can it go too far? Can it require a new level of TEM?

It hasn’t, but it could. It’s possible that the comfort level can be so well established that short cuts get taken, that inuendo or assumptions take the place of spoken words. When this happens, something can easily get missed. A few times we have forced ourselves to slow down and be more methodical. But what if we didn’t catch that? What if we let something slide? We could. It would be so easy and, worse, so…unintentional. It’s fair to say we each take some pride and balancing the scale between being professionals with a clear sense of the chain of command while also maintaining a genuine friendship.

If you think about it, that is actually the essence of good CRM: striking the balance. CRM came about because of the once-dictatorial environments that captains would create, which would stifle input and help. To think that it might have swung to far the other way is to realize the full gamut of human relationships. There is a time for the easy banter and jokes that pass the time, but there is also a time to quietly and comfortably assume the role of professionals with an airplane full of passengers entrusted to your care.

If you have worked as a CFI, you’ve probably seen something similar with at least one student. And given that pilots tend to have fairly similar personality types, it isn’t unexpected. But it is up to each of us to honor and respect the systems and procedures in place to keep those lines clear and risks minimized.—Chip Wright 

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for raising the issue: The essence of CRM is “making sure all of the important things are covered”–and communication and understanding are paramount.

    All too often, crewmembers “play the game” of CRM–going through the motions, but not really stating the rules of the game. CRM starts BEFORE even entering the cockpit, with an understanding of expectations and lines of authority–“How we will conduct this flight.” The best CRM is a balance of “things we have to do to complete this flight safely”, and “here is an agreement on how we accomplish that.”

    Inevitably, crews will have differences–in procedures, and expectations–even with checklists and training. Having a short talk gives all crewmembers the “rules of the game.” A Captain advising a First Officer to “let me know if you think I’m doing something unsafe” gives AUTHORITY to the FO to speak up, without fear of being chastised. In simply HAVING the conversation, the FO and Captain have become a crew–instead of two people sharing a small space, with possible differing ideas.

    I’ve seen the pedantic “We will follow the written checklist to the letter” type–wrapping themselves in the cloak of “safety” as well–they get so caught up in “procedure” that control of the aircraft suffers. As the author states, “To think that it might have swung to far the other way is to realize the full gamut of human relationships.”

    It has been said that “There is only one Captain of the aircraft”–but a dictatorial Captain is robbing the company of the helpful “second set of eyes” that the company is paying for. There needs to be a balance.

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