The importance of organizational culture in Aviation

All organizations maintain their own specific culture, but in that
respect probably none are more complex than the one of an international
airline. The word ‘international’ already suggests that there are diverse
political, ethnic and social issues that need to be taken into account when
designing any managerial policy.

And then on top of that there is also the requirement to maintain
products and services of uniform quality regardless of the market setting. Knowledge
of cultural dimensions is priceless in mitigating risk, containing costs and
improving corporate effectiveness. Surprisingly, the most noteworthy aspects of
organizational behaviour are often overlooked or their effect is largely

For many years now aviation has been forced to deal with a longstanding
dilemma when the issues of safety and profit are concerned. Theoretically there
should be a positive correlation between the two (a safe airline should be a
profitable airline and a profitable airline should be a safe one).

Sluggish markets, fierce competition, shrinking margins, personnel
turnover, unusual operating demands and adverse economic reality are only
several but probably the most frequently encountered characteristics of the
volatile air transportation industry. Unfortunately, more often than not they
divert the focus of management away from safety matters.

According to Robert Helmreich, a professor at University of Texas
Aerospace Crew Research Project
, effective
efforts to achieve safety must recognize the importance of culture. Organizations
must have a full understanding of cultural influences on their operations if
safety efforts are to succeed. The basic premise of this discussion is that it
is essential to build on the strengths of national culture and to enhance professional
and organizational cultures to establish a robust safety culture.

The documented processes, safety equipment, standard operating
procedures, and certified training programmes which we must utilize might be
perceived as pure administrative or bureaucratic costs. In reality, most of
them reflect the lessons learnt from years of experience, billions of flight
hours and a significant number of past accidents analysis.

When we observe the following evidence: captain’s leadership, commitment
to comply with the rules, clear tasks sharing, open communication, appropriate
level of risk awareness related to each task and phase of flight, error
management, ability to listen and to actively look for information to make safe
decisions, then without hesitation, we can say we have an optimum crew. What is
true for our crew today is also true at a corporate level. We need good
management and strong leadership, solid culture of compliance, open
communication at every level enabling a continuous learning and adaptation
process, ability to look for information and ideas from outside in order to
adopt best practices, recognition of human error as part of every human
activity and use of “fail safe” processes and procedures in accordance with
error management principles.

For pilots, however, there are three cultures dominant in shaping
actions and attitudes to consider. The first, of course, is the national
culture. But there is also a strong professional culture that is associated
with being a member of the pilot profession. Finally, organisations have their
own cultures that are closest to the daily activities of their members. While
national cultures are highly resistant to change because they surround an
individual from birth, professional and organisational cultures may be modified
through strong incentives. All three cultures are of importance in the cockpit
because they influence critical behaviour. They have a strong impact on how
juniors relate to their seniors and how information is shared. Moreover,
culture shapes attitudes about stress and personal capabilities. It also
influences adherence to the SOPs and how automation is valued and used. Each of
the three cultures has its strengths and weaknesses. The strengths enhance
safety and the weaknesses diminish it.

Results based on extensive research show that organisations, when asked
about their policies towards ensuring safety, considered the responsibility of
employees to be more important than implementing effective safety management
systems and encouraging positive safety culture. But the latter should be
actually established prior to forming the policy of an organization, because
‘The pilot is a member of a crew – a group that in turn is influenced by
factors such as professional social norms and a certain corporate culture‘.

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