Management Lessons from Airplane Crashes


Airplane crashes don’t happen often, and when they do they are no doubt among the most-studied failures in any industry. Most bad business decisions, by contrast, are pushed into the past as quickly as possible.

That may be one lesson – studying why a business strategy proved to be a failure might prevent similar failures in the future. But the lesson I want to talk about today is more specific: how Cockpit Resource Management (CRM) strategies have direct application to business management issues.

As described by Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide, over the decades many plane crashes could be traced back to the hiearchical nature of the cockpit team. Like the captain of a ship, the pilot in command was with no doubt the person in charge. Crashes could occasionally be attributed to a bad pilot decision that the copilot no doubt perceived as an error but failed to correct. Or, the copilot called an issue to the pilot’s attention once, and failed to do so again more forcefully after the pilot ignored the warning.

These crashes could have been prevented by better cockpit communication. CRM procedures were developed and implemented to ensure that a diversity of viewpoints were heard in the cockpit and that everyone on the team felt empowered to speak out.

When you think about it, plenty of bad business decisions happen the same way. Countless times I’ve seen a mid-level manager shake his head at the folly of some decision handed down by top management, but rather than objecting simply follow orders and let subsequent events show the decision was doomed from the start.

Businesses need to emulate the CRM strategy employed in cockpits: ensure that everyone has a voice and that dissenting views are aired. The decision will still have to be made, but at least all the information available will be out on the table and at least some of the gaffes can be avoided.

  1. Laurel Miltner says


    Interesting thoughts. Thanks for applying this information to the business world. Far too often, I think people are intimidated to speak up to a superior even if they know it could be in the company’s best interest. You make an excellent analogy that showcases the importance of keeping communication lines open as a sound business strategy.

    If you haven’t read it, you may be interested to know that the topic of cockpit communication is also discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in Chapter 7: The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes. He addresses the issue in regard to the number of plane crashes at airlines from different countries compared to their cultural differences in power distance. (Which, in my opinion, further enhances your point about considering power distance in the workplace.)

  2. Steve says

    My experience is that some business cultures are more open to challenge than others. It could have been the way I did it but I either got promoted or got fired when I raised an issue and persisted with it.

    The post from Laurel raises the differences in culture, I suspect this applies from business to business as well as country to country.



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