Don’t stress! Horrible bosses and the maintenance workplace

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© CASA

A silly film starts a train of thought about the connection between intelligent management and aviation safety.

Horrible Bosses is a black comedy film from a few years back involving car chases, murder plots and a certain amount of slapstick from a romantically uninhibited dentist. In contrast, horrible bosses in aviation are no laughing matter. They can be the ultimate cause of accidents, injuries and deaths, whether in the hangar or in the air.

First up, a disclaimer: Nobody is suggesting that aviation is a sector riddled with horrible bosses, or that workers are always noble and blameless. By and large both groups do their best to carry out their tasks and duties safely and competently. But aviation is an industry full of pressure on money and time, and the way in which owners, managers and shift supervisors cope with that pressure is just one of many human factors that has to be managed.

Aviation maintenance is a system, a collection of inputs and outputs that produces a result. Unreasonable practices (to use a neutral term) introduce extra stress into the aviation maintenance system. This can be stress on machines, which happens when an undocumented part is used, or it can be stress on humans.

CASA’s Human Factors toolkit for engineers has this to say about stress:

Stress is the high level of emotional arousal typically associated with an overload of mental and/or physical activity.

High levels of stress are a problem for any individual or maintenance team, since the effects of stress are often subtle and difficult to assess. Although complex and difficult maintenance activities can generate stress, there is also the stress, both physical and mental, that a team member may bring to the situation and which others may not be able to detect.

Stress can have causes at work, in the home or in the broader environment of daily life. Among its workplace causes are working under unrealistic time pressures, bullying, encountering unexpected situations, overwork, and (paradoxically) underwork.

Leaving aside for the moment the unpleasantness of a stressful workplace, the problem to aviation safety comes in the cognitive effects of stress. These have been shown to include poor concentration, indecision and forgetfulness, all the things a LAME cannot afford to suffer from.

Any engineer will tell you that too much rigidity is a problem in a system. If you try and fail to create strength you end up with brittleness. It is the same with human systems. Someone who starts a sentence with ‘you can’t tell me…’ is a hazard, whether they are boss or LAME. They are prejudging, not listening. The awful truth is that they’re right about one thing: you cannot tell them, even when they are wrong.

Yet excessive flexibility is also a problem. Someone who says ‘another LAME let that go’, about an undocumented or incorrect part is trying to shift the blame.

Everyone has heard of instances where bosses drive their staff to cover up their own managerial shortcomings. There have been cases where propellers were swapped out to put a lower-time prop on an aircraft that had a week’s hire coming up, and swapped back once the hire was done, all in record time. Fine, except that excessive unbolting and refitting, particularly under time pressure, is an unnecessary and avoidable cause of possible maintenance-induced error or damage.

How will you know that you are not working for a horrible boss? Look around. A good workplace does not have a high turnover. A figurative revolving door in an organisation is, generally, a bad sign. Individuals might have to tolerate a bad situation but people en masse do not.

The best bosses generate loyalty and an enthusiasm for the business that extends to shared vision and innovation – while respecting the boundary between innovating and taking dangerous short cuts. In a good organisation people know what is expected of them, and will make every effort to meet that standard.

A bad boss will try to generate discipline through the ‘my way or the highway’ cliché. If you hear that, take the highway.

Even so, there are some organisations that remain safe despite having unsafe leadership. It’s a sort of ‘safety by defiance’, from the staff on the hangar floor, but it cannot last. You cannot overcome stress and mental fatigue. These organisations, and their clients, are living on borrowed time.

Another sign of a good boss is one who recognises that sometimes they also have to be the boss of their clients.

The slogan ‘the customer is always right’ is fine in retailing – nobody’s going to die if they walk out of a shop wearing a colour that doesn’t really suit them.

Aviation maintenance is played for higher stakes, with airworthiness trumping everything, and a safe boss sometimes has to ask a customer to spend more money to make their aircraft safe, or tell them that it will be ready when it’s ready, not necessarily at their convenience. The best bosses act as a firewall between LAMEs and customers.

Finally, safe bosses can be just as demanding to work for as unsafe ones. You will work equally as hard, and possibly even harder, for a safe boss. This is because they are sticklers for proper procedures. The good news is that it may not seem like hard work at all, because you will feel motived and valued. A good boss expects reasons for your decisions, demands adherence to best practice procedures, and insists on approved documentation. Who ever said aviation maintenance was easy?

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