This conversation took place in the KLM flight:

  • Captain Jacob Veldhuyzen: Okay we have 700 meters visibility here now [pushing the lever of the accelerator to take off]
  • Co-pilot: Wait a minute; we don’t have ATC clearance –authorization from air traffic control.
  • Captain: I know that. Go ahead and ask! [Pulling back the lever and decelerating, with clear signs of frustration]
[After a few seconds the captain initiates again the takeoff still without the authorization from the air traffic control. This time, nobody discusses captain’s decision.]

    What did happen? How is it possible that the rest of the crew didn’t stop him from transgressing a basic rule?

    Captain Jacob Veldhuyzen was a celebrity at KLM. He was an outstanding professional and a very recognized pilot with great experience and reputation. Indeed, a conclusion investigators came up was that his great reputation, his professional power within the company and level of authority, was a barrier for crewmembers to speak candidly and contradict him. Psychological safety was missing, and the co-pilot -or flight engineer- was afraid of embarrassing the captain. The co-pilot could have insisted to the captain that he hadn’t had the final authorization to taking off. But he didn’t. Although he remembered him about his error a first time, he didn’t do it anymore, very possibly, because he didn’t want to disturb Capitan Veldhuyzen a second time. It was already awkward to have remembered him about a basic safety procedure. It is also possible that Mr. Veldhuyzen’s ego could have been also affected, which further led him to persist in his fatal error.

    After this tragedy, regulators imposed pilots and co-pilots training in what is known as CRM (Crew Resource Management); least expert pilots with less authority had to feel more comfortable to discussing captain decisions, and captains should listen to co-pilots when an issue was brought. The tools of CRM would empower and encourage everybody to speak up about what might be going wrong. Now it will be easier for subordinates to point out a pending error.

    The industry ultimately came to make a huge investment in CRM, creating a cockpit environment in which each person was encouraged, empowered, and expected to participate in critical decisions and situations. All of the members of the cockpit had to learn new means of communication. Pilots had learned to respond respectfully and promptly when a member of the crew brought up a concern. Crewmembers, for their part, had to be trained to overcome many years of fear and reticence in bringing up issues.

    This CRM working philosophy of candidness spread to other sectors, such as in hospitals. Nurses or most inexpert doctors were encouraged to discuss, for example to a surgeon, a transgression of a norm, or the failure in a safety procedure. Paul Levy, former CEO of one of the most prestigious hospitals in the US -Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center; also a medical facility of Harvard Medical School- tells the story about a medical error that happened in the hospital when a surgeon operated on the healthy leg of a patient. This patient woke up from the anesthesia and asked the doctors why he was having the bandage in the other leg. A proper training in CRM would have encouraged the rest of the team to discuss the surgeon a procedure that he was skipping in the checklist:

    • Surgeon: We proceed to operate on the leg.
    • Nurse: A moment doctor! We have not marked first the leg that we must operate on.

    How does this move to the business world? What about in hospitality teams and organizations?

    In the hospitality sector, there is a great need to create more candid workplaces because when psychological safety environments are missing, rank-and-file employees aren’t able to recognize an error in a confident way, or maybe bringing up out-of-the-box ideas into the table, or expressing divergent opinions within their teams and to their managers.

    Imagine yourself sitting in a conference room with your manager, hotel general manager, VP or the hotel group CEO. You may be familiar with any of these people having a tendency of monopolizing the debate and paying lip service when they are asking for everyone’s opinion. What’s even worst, your boss has a visceral reaction when someone in the room dares to discuss his opinion. And yet, in that same room, there are also people that you would consider to be very intelligent. However, nobody is capable of warning him that the decision he going to take may be a tremendous mistake.

    Research shows that in very hierarchical organizations psychological safety is often missing. David Sirota and Douglas A. Klein remembered us in their book The Enthusiastic Employee, that status symbols inhibit interaction by reinforcing differentiations in importance and authority. In organizations, the problem with “respect for authority”, as commonly used, is that there is generally too much, not too little, of it: most people feel a lot of inhibition about communicating candidly with those of greater power. The free exchange of information and views is critical for performance, and organizations should encourage this exchange by making people less, not more, deferential to power in the way decisions are arrived at.

    So picture a very landmark hotel, for example in Budapest, Dubai, Moscow, or London, with a very hierarchical and tayloristic culture, where front-line employees aren’t capable (and possibly not trained) to express their concerns in an openly way. And yet these rank-and-file employees have valued information to improve department processes and procedures. They do have first-hand customer feedback. But they lack the power for expressing openly their ideas and making wise decisions in their jobs. Simon Sinek refers to this concept of psychological safety as the ‘Circle of Trust’. In hospitality organizations, as in other types of business, people serving customers at the bottom have valuable information, but they do not have the power to make decisions. They aren’t empowered. On the contrary, people at the top they do have the power but they are too distant to what’s really going on. So they often lack precious information for improving service, norms, or procedures.

    Is it a cultural issue? Are status distinctions and hierarchical forms of working still very ingrained in some countries? Is it maybe a typical way of working which is very deep-rooted in our sector? Is it fear based management, autocratic bosses and non-empowering managers more common in hospitality businesses? Well, it doesn’t matter, because new generations like Millennials or the coming Z-generation, changes in technology, new disruptive products…will definitely end up with this non-productive way of working.

    Why an organizational culture of candidness matter

    What should be the first goal of a Hotel GM or Head of Department? Is it making profits and assuring the hotel service operation is running smoothly? Enhance customers experienced? The answer is no. These are both consequences of what a first goal ought to be. And that goal should be developing people’s knowledge and talent. A first priority for a manager must be creating a learning environment for promoting organizational knowledge and talent from within the company. For this purpose, frontline staff should be properly selected, trained and empowered. So, in order to be effective for achieving this goal, a CEO, hotel GM and a head of a department must trust their subordinates.

    The second goal for a good manager should be inspiring and motivating others to accomplish higher goals. Nevertheless, this second goal cannot be accomplished if management priorities aren’t really focused on encouraging trust and talent within the company. Hospitality service jobs shouldn’t be restrained by the ‘manual’ competencies, and thus limiting employees to obeying orders and to mastering the company standard procedures. Company standards are important, but these should be a starting point. Our hospitality jobs should also demand a part of ‘insight and judgment’ from employees. For this to happen, management must create an environment in which people can feel safe for expressing their ideas.

    A culture of candor promotes positive conflict or the difference of opinion. Employees must be encouraged to express their ideas, critique other people’s ideas with a constructive mindset, and find better courses of action for improving processes and procedures in the company. Executives must listen and promote communication channels to encourage individuals and teams to share their insights and opinions. And by the way, they should pay attention to personal bias of discharging bad news and only welcoming those who portray good news; one of the most serious problems for leaders who invite flattery is that they insulate themselves from the bad news they need to know.

    Managers cannot micro-manage in this new working environment of candidness. Instead, they must lead people. Coaching individuals and teams should be a natural process in their daily jobs. For this task, they should encourage frontline employees to call out problems and detect opportunities for improving hospitality operations and enhance the guest experience. Rank and file employees must be capable of real time identification of what’s wrong, in-group analysis of root-problems, and solutions finding. Good leaders and managers have a vital role for making this Kaizen philosophy in hotel operations possible.

    Leader of Level-5

    We have already talked a great deal about the idea of empowering employees in the hospitality sector since long. But it’s not working, because the idea of empowering employees is not going to happen if we do not have humble leaders as well. A humble leader has a concern and consideration for others, they value diversity and inclusion, they are open to receiving feedback from subordinates and peers, and they have integrity. Being humble is not being soft, on the contrary. Humble managers can be very assertive as well.

    Some time ago best selling author and management guru Jim Collins, discovered that one of the factors of the success of those exceptional companies over their competitors was the quality of their leadership. Those organizations providing exceptional results showed a common aspect among its leaders. Executives is those organizations that were obtaining better results and were overcoming its rivals, had a great balance between humility and assertiveness. Jim Collins called them in his book Good to Great, leaders of Level-5.

    Level-5 leaders are more mature. Understanding maturity not as becoming older or more experience but more balanced. Albert Einstein used to say that the more knowledge we have the lesser the ego. I would like to add up that knowledge is also about knowing thyself. A mature leader is more consciously aware of his strengths and flaws, shows more wisdom and practices his or her self-knowledge.

    Arturo Cuenllas
    Conscious Hospitality
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