Send the bosses into the Cockpit – Sunday Times 18 July 2010

July 20th, 2010 by Sarah Green Leave a reply »

Psychometric tests are all very well but if you want to see how a boss copes under stress, ask him to land a Boeing 737-800.

“Running a modern aircraft is not really about flying skills,” said James Stevenson at Virtual Aviation, a flight training firm. “It’s more about how you manage your co-pilot the cabin crew, relationships with air-traffic controllers and so forth. There’s a lot business can learn from work that airlines have pioneered in this area.”

Stevenson, whose company usually trains commercial pilots, is now working with Zircon, a business psychology consultancy, to offer employers the chance to see how their managers react in a life-or-death crisis – albeit one taking place in a simulator rather than an actual airliner.

Research shows that putting people under pressure in an alien environment will lead to them falling back into their core behaviour patterns, just as they would under extreme stress at work.

For example, one manager might start barking orders at his co-pilot while another is unable to make effective decisions. A third might demonstrate a dangerous willingness to take risks.

The set-up for the flight simulation exercise is fairly simple: two participants are told that their pilot and co-pilot are violently ill and that they, as passengers, will have to land the plane with some limited assistance from a senior cabin crew officer (a qualified trainer).

The actual flying is done by autopilot, but the participants will have to decide, for example, which airport to land at given the available fuel and how to cope with other emergencies that crop up.

The practical session, which is preceded by some psychometric tests, is followed up with feedback from the trainer and one-to-one coaching.

Rachel Richardson at Sporting Bet, the gaming group, has tested the programme and plans to introduce it as a management development tool.

“I thought it was an amazing experience,” she said. “It will take executives out of their comfort zone because they are in a completely alien environment. It doesn’t matter what status or title you have at work, you are now in a crisis where you have to land a plane of 158 people. It tests your cognitive, analytic and communication skills to the core.

“I would use this programme for leaders who will need to manage in a crisis … it lets you stress-test them before a real problem occurs.”

Identifying areas of weakness this way should mean they can then be offered development and coaching before they face a critical situation.

“This is a very useful development tool for individuals but it could also be useful for conflict resolution,” said Amanda Potter, a psychologist and the managing director at Zircon. She has been talking to a client about using it to help two board members who cannot communicate with each other.

While she wouldn’t single them out for the programme – the whole board would participate – she would make sure that they are paired up in the cockpit.

“It would bring to light some of the differences they are having around communication and would allow us to observe this and give feedback,” she said.

However, even pairing them up this way would not force them to work together. It’s possible for the two “pilots” to choose to work separately rather than as a team. “But however they decide to engage, we would have evidence to work with,” said Potter.

Stevenson also wants to tailor the programme so that it can be used as a recruitment test as well as a management development tool.

“It would show employers how candidates work under pressure, whether they can communicate with others, how they review their decisions and so on,” he said.

“It is very much looking at their natural behaviours. Flying skills have nothing to do with it because the plane is on autopilot.”

Potter is not convinced: “There are questions about how valid it would be if you were not recruiting pilots … I think it is more suitable for development. There it has great validity.”

Organisations could also use it to identify managers with high potential from among their existing staff, she said.

If you would like to find out more please contact:

Amanda Potter (Engagement) – 01737 555 862 or 07740 684184
Emailamanda.potter@zircon-mc.co.uk

Source: Sunday Times – Sunday 18th July 2010

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