Episode 9

The overstated role of soft skills in crew resource management: Are we being sold the icing without the cake?

February 24, 2021



In this podcast, Gitte Damm (an aviation pilot and a CRM instructor) and I discuss the role of soft skills in safety critical jobs. Based on years of research and experience in the maritime and aviation sector, we argue that soft skills are being designed and marketed as a replacement for experiential knowledge and skills which makes it problematic to achieve the intended purpose of CRM.

Further information

[00:00:00] Nippin Anand: On the 12th of January 2012, the passenger ship, Costa Concordia ran aground in what was considered one of the worst accidents in the cruise industry. What is unique about this case is how the captain of the ship became the cause of the accident. The mind boggles to understand how a team of competent and certified navigators managed to land a cruise ship equipped with state-of-the-art technology on the rocks? Why did they not see that the ship was headed into the rocks? Were these idiots, or incompetent mariners?

[00:00:37]: The accident investigation falls short of any meaningful analysis of the case and so in search of a deeper meaning to this question (and man more) we flew to the captain’s hometown in Italy while he was under house arrest nearly 5 years after the accident. During our four days of conversation with the captain, one specific theme that kept recurring was his deep concern about the (maritime) industry’s approach to education and training and how it relates to the grounding of Costa Concordia.

And this is what he had to say:

[00:01:09] Capt. Schettino: I’m sad that the industry is organizing many leadership trainings or whatever and I appreciate this but this is not the matter of leadership. This is the very start of the education of a deck cadet. Even if you know how to share the information, but before that, you must to have the professional skill to recognize the danger. If you don’t recognize the danger, how can you share the information with the others? Who captain – If an officer says we are 1 cable away from the rocks doesn’t react? The problem is the reason to believe that nobody yet has the experience to recognize the danger and overestimate the professionalism of the captain that maybe he can have some magician-like way out maybe because the captain is so skillful and a good seaman that he has his way and won’t provoke the accident. Going ahead, I’ll show you the blackbox, it is unbelievable! When I saw that white foam, I don’t know I didn’t faint.

[00:02:51] Nippin Anand: Now we have two options. We can either dismiss these views as yet another tactic of the captain to defend himself and divert the attention of public outrage or we could slow down and systematically make an attempt to understand the deeper meaning of his frustrations. That choice sits with the listeners.

[00:03:13]: But allow me to simplify the captain’s statement. Most high-risk operations involve working as teams. And when it comes to managing errors in high-risk operations, there are two key issues to consider – the ability to recognize errors and to communicate those errors to other team members so meaningful action can be taken to ensure that the error does not lead to an undesirable situation (like an accident).

[00:03:44]: The captain in this audio is concerned that the education and training today is far too focused on communicating errors and less on recognising the errors. And this is precisely the topic of today’s podcast. A large part of what is being taught in crew resource management today can be ascribed to ‘soft skills’ – i.e., situational awareness, leadership, teamwork, overcoming cultural differences, coping with stress, emergency management and so on. The core of these courses remains focus on two key attributes – good communication (whatever that means) and assertiveness (the ability to surface your concerns to someone in a higher position). But very little attention is paid to the experience and knowledge required to recognise the problem in the first instance. Metaphorically speaking, if you consider CRM as a birthday cake where basic competence (knowledge and skills) is the base of the cake and soft skills training is the icing on the cake, today we have reached a stage where we are only being sold the icing on the cake. The cake has almost disappeared from the picture.

I would encourage you to listen the podcast to make sense of the problem with soft skills and for that I am so excited to have a very special guest and a dear friend Gitte Damm who joins me in this podcast today.

It would nice if you would say a few words about yourself.

[00:05:22] Gitte Damm: I have been within aviation for nearly 20 years. I’ve been flying until 2016 always been interested in CRM and human factors topics and I have been teaching that for the last couple of years. So that is what I do today and actually Nippin, I was also thinking about when we talk about selling soft skills, this is to a certain degree what I’m doing, I’m just trying to create a different perspective but I would actually also like to bring in that I can do the CRM training and I have done that with you know, the very best of intentions based on how I interpreted the rules of how we actually teach CRM.

[00:06:15]: It’s not until recently after I started at Lund University that I actually started to broaden my view and see it from a different perspective. I do understand that it can be difficult to see it differently if we’re not really taught in a specific manner or seeing the broader perspective as well. But for now, I’m in overwhelmed in my thesis work at Lund University in Human factors and systems safety which is really a great gift me being there but also a challenge as well.

[00:06:50] Nippin Anand: What I would do now and just for the sake of our listeners state what is it that this podcast is about and just to make the focus really clear – The title of the podcast is a little bit humorous. It’s called the role of soft skills in crew resource management training. We will occasionally use the word CRM or BRM but it basically means the same thing as it is in the aviation world. It’s the same concept at least in the maritime world.

[00:07:17]: What we’re saying is that are we being sold the icing without the cake? The question that we’ll be asking this podcast today is what is the importance of soft skills in the CRM training? Particularly when it comes to addressing the competence requirements in high-risk industries and the argument that I would like to put forward is something like this that the notion of soft skills is not understood very well when it comes to CRM.

[00:07:44]: It is actually sold as replacement for experiential knowledge and skills which some people would refer to as competence or technical knowledge rather than being complementary and in many ways an add-on to it. So, we are seeing soft skills slowly replacing the need for the technical knowledge and experience that you need to do your job and that in my view is dangerous. There’s a lot of emphasis on soft skills but very little on the technical knowledge and skills of people.

How do you think about that title, Gitte?

[00:08:18] Gitte Damm: I can relate to that but when we talk about technical knowledge, we are also talking about the experience of it or the lived experience of the work and how this practical knowledge is also a part of it that we leave out when we are just addressing soft skills.

[00:08:36] Nippin Anand: Gitte you heard the captain’s view about soft skills in the beginning. What are your views about it?

[00:08:45] Gitte Damm: I have to say it’s a very recognizable. I think he actually has a point that he talks about how the industry is, as you talk about putting up icing on the cake in terms of soft skills of leaderships and things like that is very recognizable within aviation. I can give you the example of we talk about leadership or we talk about communication or we talk about assertiveness and things like that and a topic like assertiveness has had a huge amount of focus within aviation, that you need to be able to speak up you, you need to be firm or you need to say no. But how do you actually do that if you’re not able to recognize the signals? If you don’t have the foundations of the experience to actually be able to see the signals? How do you do that? And that’s one of the very difficult things about the soft skills that we are using a sort of a standard that one fits all solution to that but it’s not like that in the real world.

[00:09:57]: Nippin Anand: Interestingly, there is very little literature on this, isn’t it? One consultant probably tells me that it’s also called non-technical skills by the way, so that if you are going to high-risk industries when you’re talking to a lot of technical people, we consciously avoid the term soft skill then we say non-technical skills. Interesting it is that how we promote this message using this discourse even before we go any further, I would like to actually talk about this whole idea of CRM just to give the reader some background to what CRM is and know how it fits in with the idea of soft skills.

[00:10:35]: This is how I understand it at least. So, this goes back to 1977 when we had this famous Tenerife accident and crew resource management since then has been through very significant revisions. But one of the things I find very interesting is this narrative that we see all the time in CRM which goes something like this, it says that, “An accident occurred because the co-pilot did not question the judgment of the pilot.  The co-pilot knew the correct course of action but did not feel psychologically safe to question the pilot. The co-pilot would rather die rather than questioning the authority of the pilot. Had the co-pilot spoken up the crash would not happen.

[00:11:18]: We now train our people, we even have protocols for them to speak up and when they don’t, we reprimand them. That’s a very interesting narrative because it paints the picture along the lines of what the captain is saying. That we know what the problem is, we understand what the issues, but we just need to speak up now and make ourselves heard.

[00:11:37]: This is the very famous idea of some people call it ‘power gradient’ and somehow if you can reduce this gradient of people in higher ranks where people who are in lower positions you can solve this problem. But I think it’s a very oversimplified understanding of how we position CRM in high-risk industries.

[00:11:59]: What we found in the case of the Costa Concordia was that I think we are missing out something really fundamental here. So, what we see Gitte, in the cruise sector is this accident happened in 2012 and just if you place yourself 10 years before that accident, where was the industry? We see significant increase in the in the supply and demand of cruise services. So just to put things in numbers which I try and kind of avoid if I can but I think this is very important for what we’re talking about now. It is that the supply of cruise ships had increased 84% in the middle east 10 years period. In the Mediterranean alone the supply increased something like 160% at as far as the demand for cruise services is concerned, that there was an increase of about 77% in the global demand for crew services and similarly in Europe alone it was about 136% increase in demand. So, if you look at it 10 years before the accident, we have had a significant expansion of both supply and demand of cruise services and what that means to us particularly for this discussion is that there is an acute shortage of people who work in the cruise sector. If you are a company that is responsible to maintain the manpower, you find yourself in a very difficult situation and what do you do then?

[00:13:25]: Now there’s two things you can do one is you opt for production line training which is come up with some sort of quick fix to training and the other thing is you opt for faster promotions. So traditionally the maritime world has always been very hierarchical and takes a lot of time to build that experiential knowledge and skills before you promote people to a certain rank. So, you try and compress that time now from 20 years or 15 years it now takes 8, 9 or 10 years to churn out the captain in the supply chain.

[00:13:58]: But what interests me in this discussion was is this attitude towards training that is change, that how do you turn training into some sort of production line service? That is where I find that experiential knowledge is being replaced with soft skills. You don’t need to be a very experienced person. All you need to do is just attend these 3 to 5 days course which talks about leadership, personal management and communication and assertiveness and you can somehow overcome the problem of skills when it comes to technical knowledge and there is also this underlying assumption that the technology can take care of those needs which is also very fascinating. So, in a way a systemic problem of competence is being replaced or addressed through behavioral intervention tools like assertiveness, speaking up, and I’m sure you know all these tools this is precisely. What Schettino is trying to say when he says that people should learn to speak. It’s not a question of how to speak up it’s about when and what to say and that comes from years of knowledge and experience and that is something that soft skills cannot deliver.

[00:15:17]: So, I think this is a very wrong understanding of the problem which leads to wrong solutions and wrong policies and wrong training frameworks. So, we use soft skills to compensate for years of knowledge and experience and then I think it’s dangerous and I often imagine getting on, I will show you the image later on, that there is an officer who is keeping watch on the bridge independently and then there is a captain who’s sleeping on the deck below. If that officer cannot perform his or her job independently the captain will always be up, he will always be worried, he’ll always be very concerned. And my question is that no amount of soft skills will ever create that trust between the captain and the subordinate. The only way to create the trust is to have an acceptable level of competence before you enter into the industry and I’m afraid soft skill is not solving that problem.

[00:16:11]: Gitte Damm: I think you’re right and if I can just comment on some of the things he said because it’s from my own personal experience as pilots. But we’ve been very much through these demands of pilots, the demands of competences and how to actually get this experience. So, when I was flying, I had been flying like 10 years in and out of Denmark – very flat country, not really demanding down to Germany and things like that. Then I started another job in another airline and suddenly we had to fly North, in Norway in winter conditions which was very very demanding. But due to the fact that I had you know, 10+ of experience as a pilot it was assumed that I could just deliver. Initially the demand was that the first officers would have 1500 hours of flight experience in order to fly in these winter conditions. But we didn’t have that experience, so eventually you would end up with the first officer who had like 30 hours on the aircraft and then you start to compromise the different things.

[00.17:17]: But the argument becomes that you’ve had the training, the first officers have had the training of conversion course, of CRM courses, of being in the simulator and things like that and that becomes the argument that you could actually fly in these conditions. But you can never resemble the real-life experience that you have in the simulator or with the soft skills through training and especially not the way that we actually designed the training today. So, I think it I really can relate to how it actually ends up being on the surface of something that we can use as an argument rather than actually looking at what do we need, what do we actually need in order to get some of this tacit or toxic knowledge out to get some sort of experience and prepare the pilots to fly in different conditions.

[00:18:10]: That is actually the first thing, but if I can just add on to this about the soft skills Nippin, the idea or the reason that I actually started at Lund University was due to this idea that I was, back in 2015 we had the Germanwings flight and what happens after an accident that it happens that and goes in and say we need to do something about this we need to train the pilots better and that topic in CRM became resilience development and at that point I was like you know within this CRM community I was OK – we need to be more resilient, how do we actually train that so I started doing all sorts of training and lessons, I wrote articles about it, I did some presentations about it placing the responsibility at the pilots and that they needed to be more resilient and I did some CRM training and suddenly you know these lacking feelings started to happen.

[00:19:16]: I was like this isn’t right because the stories that the pilots were telling me, I ended up thinking how can I ask them to be more resilient? How is this actually helping? How is this actually promoting safety and that was actually how my journey started in this that something is wrong. We can’t place the responsibility at the level of the human when we talk about soft skills and I feel a bit that is what we’re actually doing the way, that we structured our training today. Do you agree? Do you see the same thing?

[00:19:53]: Nippin Anand: I agree with most of what you’re saying and what really struck me was the idea what you just mentioned with how we frame this whole idea of competence as an individual’s problem. That if you don’t have the competence then it’s your problem when the whole system is framed in a way that there’s very little you can do to acquire that competence so I’m intrigued by what you said just now. Absolutely this whole idea that competence is an individual’s problem.

[00:20:25]: I’m pretty sure that you know when you when people hear what we’re talking about it’s very easy to swing in that direction that “Here you go again! So, what you’re saying to me is that I don’t have enough knowledge and experience” and that’s not what we’re trying to say here. What we’re trying to say is that the system is not capable to take care of the needs. There’s failures at many levels here. There’s the failure in the level of regulation, there’s a failure at the level of overcapacity and over demand of the services which the industry is not able to cope with and the solution that we’re looking for here is a fast production line kind of training. It’s a systemic problem, let’s put it this way.

[00:21:11] Gitte Damm: It is like you’re saying, you know, it’s the cake we’ve forgotten. We are icing and icing and icing. Again, I had this pilot when I did the research and I just think he said it’s so beautifully because he actually says it just takes 10 years to get 10 years of experience and he said you can provide me with all sorts of tools of decision making, tools to we call them in aviation, but you will never get into that scenario that you actually trained. You will get into 100 others scenarios that you have to deal with that you haven’t been trained for and I think he’s actually addressing the way that training is structured. It does not really resemble the real-world experience and I think Schettino is actually right when he says that we are placing an overestimation of professionalism on the captains.

[00:21:56]: I think it’s in a way how I see that he’s actually addressing this that because we train people we can now say “OK we’ve done what we can here’s the training so now you should be capable” and the problem is that people are not prepared for the real world and what is actually going on out there because we’re not interested in looking at the cake -the experience, the expertise, the tactic knowledge that’s there as well.

[00:22:25] Nippin Anand: Indeed, it’s what we’re measuring, isn’t it the whole emphasis. It is on behavioral skills and the non-technical skills and if that’s what we’re measuring then that’s where we see the problem. They will never be able to uncover the real issues here. I also had many captains who I have interviewed, senior managers, on ships, I mean and one of the things that you keep hearing Gitte, is that when you have a problem onboard a ship when you don’t have an officer who is who makes certain standards of competence and you go back to the company, talk about it, to raise your concerns the response sometimes is that “Captain, you need to do some training for these people and you need to bring them up to the standard, it’s your job.” That’s interesting because yes, everyone takes pride in training their subordinates. This is something that is being done traditionally in the maritime world and I’m sure in many other industries, where you have this notion of apprentice models of training. People take pride in that, but the question is that you soon find yourself in a position that that becomes a job on its own for you because it is a constant supply of people who are coming into the industry without proper training.

[00:23:45]: What was also interesting in the maritime world and this is also out of my own PhD, my own research brought up that a lot of people have a very short-term view of the profession. They enter into the profession with a very ‘plug and play’ kind of a mindset that – I will be in the profession for five years and I want to make my money and I want to leave. What I found is that in that context with that mindset, your relationship with technology is fundamentally different from somebody who enters into the profession and sees it as a pride to get things done and it works against the technology sometimes, despite the technology, some time together in the technology to create that success so we’re very different models of our profession.

What’s even more dangerous is that when you try to bring these two sets of people together – one who see pride in the profession and another one who see profession as a short term means to get somewhere else. That’s a really interesting dynamic, Gitte.

[00:24:36] Gitte Damm: Yeah, I think you just tapped into something because when I became at captain, I’ve been flying as a first officer for seven years – I remember that I was thinking “Am I ready? Can I really do this job? and how it’s going to be? Today when I teach at flight schools, we have these young people and they will say, “So, Gitte how long before I become a captain? How many hours?” and I’m just like “How can you ask that?!” you know because I come from another mindset that you know, I wanted to have the experience or I wanted to be more ready to feel, to sit in the left seat and today it’s all about when can I become a captain? Because they usually give a raise and that usually gives something, and it’s a different mindset think that’s definitely something that should be brought into the discussion as well that there are these different mindsets of what does this role that I take upon me, what does it actually mean?

[00:25:38] Nippin Anand: Absolutely and the quote that comes to mind from James Reason is something like this that “One person’s expertise is another person’s error.” That’s fascinating because when these two people sit in the cockpit or stand on the bridge over the ship and they look out of the window that mental model is completely ways apart. What one person sees and what the other person see is 2 completely different things and again I go back to the same thing that no number of soft skills will ever address that issue of shared mental model as we call it. That shared mental model will come through experience, through some sort of a common language. But when you’re talking to the other person you can be sure what the other person is doing is to your expectations.

[00:26:25] Gitte Damm: Yeah absolutely! But I also think when we talk about soft skills Nippin, what do we actually mean? Because if you asked different people, they will come with 10 different answers of assertiveness, of professionalism, of airmanship or seamanship of what it actually means and then we are left in a world of ‘nobody really knows’ but nevertheless it can be used as an argument after the fact, after something has happened, suddenly somebody judges that this is the meaning of not being assertive enough or not being resilient enough or something like that.

[00:27:00] Nippin Anand: Very good point this is called the ‘economy of language’ that use language very carefully. It says, as much as it holds back but it does enough to prove something in hindsight.

[00:27:12] Gitte Damm: What I fear in this is that we’re placing the responsibility with a human operator that we’re actually allowing the way that we train to appoint blame somehow on the human operator and I think that is perhaps why we need to question these things – is it actually working the way that that we’re actually training now? So that is that’s sort of my fear behind it, I think.

[00:27:40] Nippin Anand: From your experience Gitte, do companies that consume these services crew resource management do they recognize the problem that we’re talking about here?

[00:27:49] Gitte Damm: I think some do along with James Reasons as well have broadened the view a little bit into the organizational factors but we’re not really you know, when I do that CRM training and I try to implement or introduce things from safety science people will say, “Yeah that’s very interesting but you know he’s to blame or she’s to blame.” the perspective behind and it’s like a wall of assumptions that is very very hard to pull it is very hard to introduce something new so I think we have a long way to go but I think we are opening up to it slightly.

[00:28:27] Nippin Anand: Yeah, I mean that’s very interesting because if you look at the accident of Air France or you look at the Lion Air here or particularly Ethiopian Airlines, if you look at the dynamics between the pilot and co-pilot, the pilot had ample experience, but the copilot had only 200 hours of flying hours in one of the articles I read that you have literally put a student next to a pilot. That’s fascinating because this is huge gradient, skill gradient, not a power gradient, skill gradient between the pilot in the co-pilot and one wonders that do we not recognize the limitations of certification and training and CRM in this context? That no matter how hard you try you cannot bridge this gap. This is a huge gap and the problem is that these gaps probably exist all the time but the only time they become really visible is when there is an accident happens and yet to be fair, pay so little attention to this.

[00:29:24] Gitte Damm: Because most of the time it goes well and getting back to the Norway winter operation, I was sometimes flying with somebody where there was this big difference in experience level and skills level and flying six sectors in that kind of weather knowing that the person next to me was fresh out of school demanded even more and we’re not really looking into that of how to actually differentiate the level of skill in the cockpit. We can continue for hours, Nippin.

[00:29:57] Nippin Anand: Well, thank you, Gitte. Fascinating! Really good discussion.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed the podcast and you can think more clearly about the problem of soft skills. So next time, if a ship runs aground or the pilot does not do as expected, and somebody comes up with the solution that the problem lies with soft skills training, I am sure that you would now give a better explanation and show them the light and that’s precisely the purpose of this podcast. So, thank you for listening, and I shall see you again, next week. Bye bye!