Norms and organizational culture important for safer aviation

December 20, 2011

Sometimes pilots violate established procedures and rules. This may lead to an increased risk of accidents. One effective way for airline companies to reduce violations is to focus more on norms, safety culture and risk awareness within the organisation rather than on individual employees' attitudes towards rules and procedures. This is the main conclusion of a new doctoral thesis in psychology from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Safe and effective aviation is dependent on the pilots' ability to make appropriate decisions. Even though pilots are well trained and there are rules, models and standardised operating procedures that are intended to aid the decision-making process, there are still accidents. One reason accidents occur is that individuals sometimes decide to violate standard operating procedures and rules.

'Violation of procedures is not uncommon among pilots, and there may be many reasons for this,' says Johan Lindvall, psychology researcher at the University of Gothenburg with a background as a commercial airline pilot.

The pilot is a member of a crew - a group that in turn is influenced by factors such as professional social norms and a certain corporate culture. Yet the pilot is also an independent individual. Risk assessments, social skills and ability to make decisions are some of the individual characteristics that affect how people relate to standard operating procedures.

In order to explore how these factors affect pilots' readiness to violate procedures, Johan Lindvall studied pilots in a flight simulator and used scenario-based questionnaires. All participants in his study have worked as commercial airline pilots.

Lindvall found that those who violated the procedures tended to underestimate the risks and be overconfident about their own abilities. They felt more pressured to violate the procedures and felt less supported by colleagues when making their decision. They were also not as good as their procedure-complying counterparts at involving colleagues in the decision-making process. However, he did not find any link between the pilots' attitudes to the importance of the procedures and their actual behaviour - a result that can be explained by the general observation that the connection between attitudes and actual behaviour is typically quite weak.

'Another result is that although pilots are trained to make analytical, systematic and normatively correct decisions, most of them rely on their experience when the situation calls for it. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but shows that decision-making strategies are dynamic and situation dependent,' says Lindvall

Lindvall tried to find out both why an individual acts in a certain way in a given situation and how individuals affect and are affected by the system they are in.

'One conclusion is that holistic and individual factors jointly affect the behaviour of pilots. The ability to understand how the different parts and the whole interact in a system may be a key factor in the creation of a safe system,' says Lindvall.
-end-


University of Gothenburg

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