Brave enough to challenge your boss?

Many will recognize it: the fear of speaking up to point out a mistake of someone senior to us. But this lack of ‘parity’ (power balance), which prevents us from speaking up, can have destructive consequences.

In 1977, two planes collided at Tenerife airport killing 583 people, making it the deadliest accident in aviation history. There were numerous factors contributing to the crash, but perhaps the most fundamental reason is that Captain Veldhuyzen van Zanten decided to take off without clearance from Air Traffic Control. The more junior first officer and flight engineer spotted this mistake but were hesitant to speak up against him.

The fundamental problem was a lack of parity in the relationship between the pilot and the first officer and flight engineers. These junior co-pilots were powerless to question the actions of the Captain. In the airline industry at the time, there was a culture of ‘the pilot is always right’. Furthermore, Captain Veldhuyzen van Zanten was one of the most respected pilots in the airline and had recently trained the pilots himself.

The significant disparity in the relationships in the cockpit meant warning voices weren’t heard and thus the tragic accident happened. Since then new training procedures, known as crew resource management, have been brought in to enable junior staff to speak up to more senior staff, including pilots, if they believe they have made a mistake.

The airline industry know that parity reduces risk. And so does the medical industry. For example, when some young children died during heart operations at a Bristol hospital it was found that nurses were unable to make their concerns heard.

As a result, pilots have been helping to train medical staff to stand up to their bosses. It is hoped this training will give doctors and nurses the boldness and language to challenge more senior staff when they believe a mistake has been made. Strong relationships with parity of power between staff reduce risk. When the balance is right, junior staff can question a senior colleague if they believe they are making a mistake.

When power is fairly used it increases organisational effectiveness. It empowers the effective participation of all involved which causes achievement to increase because it enables the contributions of others in time, skills and knowledge.

Parity is fundamental for interpersonal relationships to flourish. However disparity can reduce respect. This might mean failing to recognise a company’s history or working practices, or it might simply lead to bullying.

Through tragic accidents, the airline industry and the medical industry have been able to learn the importance of parity and the importance of effective relationships between colleagues and therefore equip staff to avoid future accidents. However, for many people, communities and organisations, there is a complete lack of awareness of the significant problems that can be caused by disparity. Yet, as the airline and medical industries have shown, the risk is great. Get parity wrong in a relationship, and the effects can be devastating.

Read more about ‘Parity’ and how it affects relationships here and here. For Partners of the Network more documents can be found in the Resource Hub in the Partner Section of the website.

Also, if you are interested in topic, why not come to our ANNUAL CONFERENCE where we will be exploring what happens when relationships are stressed and damaged, and what kind of risks organizations are exposed to through the relationships they depend on.