CRM and Culture:
National, Professional, Organizational, Safety
Robert L. Helmreich and John A. Wilhelm
Aerospace Crew Research Project
The University of Texas at Austin
The multiple cultures that influence pilot behavior and the ability of cultures to deflect or enhance the impact of CRM training are described. A new, Fifth Generation model of CRM training based on the management of human error is presented. Organizational actions necessary to make the new approach to CRM work are delineated. A conceptual model of the relationships between national, professional, organizational, safety cultures, CRM and crew performance is postulated.
Recently there has been something of a backlash against CRM training (Merritt & Helmreich, 1996a). Some critics, mired in the past, still view CRM as a form of "touchy-feely", New Age training based on personality dynamics and the search for group harmony. Others suggest that the impact of training has never been validated (see Helmreich & Foushee, 1993 for a discussion of behavioral validation). Perhaps the most serious, but equally flawed criticism, is that human error accidents and incidents continue to occur after CRM training, thus proving its ineffectiveness.
CRM is not a universal recipe for safety. It is a highly effective and essential aspect of flight crew training, but its impact is limited by the context in which it is delivered. Recently, both the research and operational communities have become aware of the powerful influence of culture on behavior. National culture is the overarching framework within which all humans behave. Despite a widely expressed view that the cockpit is a culture free environment, national culture plays a powerful role in the cockpit. It affects relationships between subordinates and superiors and even the use of automation (Helmreich, Merritt & Sherman, 1997; Sherman, Helmreich & Merritt, in press). National culture has been defined as the shared values and attitudes of a national group that direct behavior. Ashleigh Merritt (Merritt, in press) discusses the nature and implications of national culture in aviation in the following paper. This present discussion will be limited to the other cultures that guide pilot behavior and their relationships with CRM.
The multiple cultures of aviation. Within a national culture, crew behavior is shaped by three additional cultures – the professional culture of the pilot, the organizational culture and subcultures, and the safety culture of the organization. Figure 1 shows the nested cultures surrounding any crew. The critical point is that any of these cultures can deflect the goals of CRM.
Professional culture reflects the attitudes and values associated with an occupation. In the case of pilots, it is associated with a pride in profession and a liking for the job. However, it is also associated with an unrealistic denial of vulnerability to the multiple stressors of the occupation – fatigue, threat, the ability to leave personal problems behind when flying (Helmreich & Merritt, in press; Merritt & Helmreich, 1996). A failure to recognize the limitations of human performance is a pilot universal and such attitudes can reduce the acceptance of CRM training – perpetuating the stereotype of the lone aviator battling the elements with no need for the support of fellow crewmembers. Figure 2 shows the distribution of attitudes on the Flight Management Attitudes Questionnaire (Helmreich et al., 1993) Stress scale from 5,700 pilots from 11 nations.
Organizational culture is manifested in such things as the openness of communication between management and employees, the commitment of resources to training and maintenance, and the attitudes and behavior of critical role models such as check airmen. The level of teamwork among groups (for example, pilots, flight attendants, maintenanc, etc.) is also a part of the culture. The organizational culture is not necessarily synonymous with the organizational climate, which is reflected in morale and a sense of family. For example, organizations with a positive organizational culture may also have low morale because of financial or competitive pressures. A negative organizational culture can result in CRM being viewed as yet another "square filling" exercise rather than a reflection of the organization’s standards. Figure 3 shows an example of the acceptance of CRM in two organizations.
Safety culture in a high risk endeavor such as aviation can be distinguished from the organizational culture (Merritt & Helmreich, 1996b). Safety culture is demonstrated through perceptions of the organization’s trade-offs between safety and profitability and demonstrated commitment to safety. It is also manifested in knowing channels to communicate safety concerns and a sense that these sill be addressed. Other manifestations of a positive safety culture include a strong safety officer and proactive safety programs such as safety publications.
If the cultures are supportive of CRM as a critical component of safety, the acceptance and practice of CRM concepts will be greatly enhanced. Conversely, training is not likely to leave the confines of the schoolhouse if the cultures are not congruent with what is taught.
What is CRM and How Does it Fit with Cultures?
Modern CRM programs are no longer derivatives of management training, nor are they New Age exercises in building harmony within the cockpit. CRM has passed through a number of generations during its lifetime of less than twenty years (Helmreich & Foushee, 1993; Helmreich, 1996). By the mid-1990s, we could identify four generations of training that have become progressively more operational in focus and much broader in scope. Fourth generation CRM focused on specific behaviors that can maintain situation awareness and promote utilization of available resources. By this time, the single focus on the flightdeck had shifted to a greater concern with other aspects of the aviation system including coordination with cabin crew and other elements including air traffic control and dispatch. Joint training involving cockpit and cabin crews was accepted and widespread. Similarly, issues of culture were recognized and addressed. New topics such as automation and interaction with the FMC as an "electronic crewmember" began to be incorporated into recurrent CRM, resulting in more relevant training.
Another positive development was recognition of the importance of national culture. Organizations around the world acknowledged that importing a course from the United States was not likely to produce desired changes in behavior (Helmreich, Merritt & Sherman, 1997). The results have been encouraging. Airlines in many nations have developed CRM programs that are culture-sensitive and more congruent with their national cultures.
Seeking a Universal Model – the Fifth Generation of CRM
Despite its evolutionary change, acceptance of CRM has remained imperfect. Some concepts, such as more open communication between subordinates and superiors, are difficult to implement in cultures where strong hierarchical power is normative. Around the world, the professional culture of pilots continued to deter acceptance of CRM – the invulnerable pilot and true professional is self-sufficient and CRM is fine for the weak and inept.
Recognizing the limitations of contemporary CRM, we have sought a universal model that could be accepted as readily in Beijing as in Houston. One assumption about culture is unassailable – safety is a universal value, though its practice is not. To this end we have proposed a Fifth Generation of CRM training that has as its explicit goal the management of human error (Helmreich, 1997a; Helmreich & Merritt, in press). Of course, the origins of CRM were in response to human error, especially those associated with ineffective teamwork and decision making. However, over the years, the underlying premise seems to have been lost or at least clouded. This was verified by asking pilots why CRM is part of their training. The modal response was "To enhance teamwork and coordination."
Fifth Generation CRM is based on the fact that human error is ubiquitous and inevitable. To be effective, the training must credibly communicate the limits of human performance with regard to mental capacity and ability to function under stress. The explicit goal of this aspect of training is to change the professional culture and to foster a more realistic awareness of personal limits and capabilities. This is an achievable and critical goal that has as a primary benefit removal of a personal barrier to acceptance of CRM concepts.
If pilots recognize the inevitability of error, the idea that behaviors taught in CRM are countermeasures against error becomes both palatable and important. Accepting the inevitability of error also makes it easier to report personal error. While the avoidance of error is the highest level of effective CRM, the training necessarily stresses that errors will occur and that CRM provides secondary and tertiary defenses – trapping errors that do occur and mitigating the consequences of those that are not trapped. The model is shown in Figure 4.
If error management is accepted as a superordinate goal by pilots, actions that might appear in violation of cultural norms can be accepted and practiced. For example, a subordinate in a culture where questioning a captain’s actions is not practiced may do so if he or she recognizes that it is essential to achieve the higher goal of safety.
Simply training pilots in CRM as error countermeasures will not lead to behavioral change on the flightdeck. The safety culture must also be congruent with this training model. Perhaps the strongest action that can support the safety culture is a non-punitive stance toward error and a policy that encourages pilots to report errors and safety problems. Taking positive action to address issues raised through such a program gives a strong message about the strength of the safety culture. American Airlines has had success with its Air Safety Action Partnership (ASAP). The program encourages pilots to report error without jeopardy and takes immediate action to address problems identified. Rather than hiding errors, the open sharing of error and the effective management of error provide reinforcement of CRM practices. The saying To err is human, to forgive is divine must be modified – To err is human, to forgive is essential.
Another area that requires change for the implementation of Fifth Generation CRM is the training and qualification of instructors and check airmen (Tullo, in press). It is essential that training and evaluation not only focus on the avoidance of error, but also on the management of error. Effective management of error should be reinforced just as exemplary, error free performance is. This will not be an easy task, since the historical model in aviation has centered on the punishment of error and all organizations have considerable inertia.
How effective will the Fifth Generation be? Continental Airlines is the first U.S. carrier to completely refocus its CRM training as error management. The awareness phase of their program consists of a one-day seminar that involves not only the basic concepts but also practice in the evaluation of how crews manage error. As a subtle but important indication of organizational commitment to error management, Continental has abandoned the old "pilot flying – pilot not flying" designation in favor of "pilot flying – pilot monitoring" (PF and PM). The jury is out, but there is reason to believe that the Continental program heralds a new, more effective means of CRM training.
Putting the Pieces Together
While each of the four cultures has been implicated in safety and as a determinant of crew performance, their inter-relationships have not been disentangled. Understanding the inter-relationships among the various cultures is important if we are to understand the points of greatest leverage for achieving the kinds of "safe behaviors" that can make the aviation system function optimally.
We pointed out that organizational culture is not necessarily isomorphic with organizational climate – the latter reflecting the morale and sense of family of members and the former shared values and practices. Those concerned with safety have often assumed that low morale indicates an organizational culture that may result in accidents. Indeed, the National Transportation Safety Board, in its manual for accident investigators, provides a checklist of organizational culture, that includes morale as a constituent (NTSB, 1991). However, empirical evidence to support the linkage is lacking. In the 1980s, investigations of several airlines torn by labor strife failed to reveal any increase in incidents associated with low morale or interpersonal strife.
Figure 5 is a theoretical model of paths of influence between cultures, training and behavior. Solid lines depict relationships for which empirical evidence has been gathered. For example, we know that training (CRM for example, does influence operational behavior (e.g., Helmreich & Foushee, 1993). Similarly, the organizational culture determines the quality and extent of training as well as organizational climate (beyond regulatory minimums). National culture also influences the design and delivery training. Finally, there is growing evidence that training can modify the professional culture.
Safe behaviors are defined as the normal, safety-conscious practices of crews in line operations (as opposed to performance in training or during formal evaluation). We feel that the most valid way to measure organizational practices is through line audits. These are conducted by expert observers who can reliably assess behavior under non-jeopardy conditions (Helmreich, 1997b). Hines (in press) describes the results of data collected during line audits at four airlines. On the other hand, although important theoretically, the relationships between safety culture and national culture and professional culture and safe behaviors have not been demonstrated empirically because a quantitative index of safety culture has not been developed. The relationships between organizational climate and safety culture and safe behaviors, if any, have also to be determined.
One of our immediate research goals is to evaluate the model using data from a variety of organizations. Validating the model should help organizations diagnose their own cultures and take appropriate action to optimize safety practices.
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Figure 1. The multiple cultures surrounding flight crews.
Figure 2. FMAQ Stress scores from 5700 pilots in 11 nations.
Figure 3. Evaluation of CRM training for instructors and evaluators in two organizations.
Figure 4. The goals of Fifth Generation CRM training
Figure 5. A theoretical model of the paths among cultures and their relationship with crew performance. Solid lines indicate relationships for which empirical evidence exists; dotted lines are hypothesized relationships.