It was a cold snowy day in the winter of 1982. It had taken me 3 hours to drive 15 miles home from work. I remember hearing the news on the radio, and I remember driving over the bridge the next day and seeing the eerie site of the tail section of the Air Florida Flight 90 plane sticking up out of the frozen Potomac. Icing had caused the speed indicators in the cockpit to read too high, leading the captain to apply too little power as the plane lifted off.

This was the cockpit conversation:

First Officer: Ah, that's not right.
Captain: Yes, it is, there's 80 [referring to speed].
First Officer: Nah, I don't think it's right. Ah, maybe it is.
Captain: Hundred and twenty.
First Officer: I don't know.

It wasn't right, and the First Officer's stifling his feedback led to the plane's stalling and crashing into a Potomac River bridge, killing all but five people on board and some people on the bridge. Before this crash, The National Transportation Safety Board had singled out another captain's failure to accept input from junior crewmembers (a characteristic sometimes referred to as the "Wrong Stuff") and a lack of assertiveness by the flight engineer as causal factors in a United Airlines crash in 1978. Further research identified the human error aspects of the majority of air crashes as failures of interpersonal communications, decision-making, and leadership. Since the 1980's the airline industry has implemented "Crew Resource Management" training programs to address this issue and change the cockpit culture and communication patterns so feedback flows effectively.

The lack of feedback is dangerous in any occupation, yet many organizations have not addressed the vital importance of feedback. In cases of workplace violence, we have seen that employees sometimes have information about a potentially violent person that they don't pass on until it is too late. In high school shootings, it is common for other students to know that an attack will occur and not alert an adult. While lack of feedback will most likely not lead to death at your workplace, it could lead to the loss of a valuable employee or customer, or result in errors or reduced productivity. In looking at the results of exit interviews across many organizations, I hear time and time again employees say, "the reason I'm leaving is because I didn't get enough feedback and development from my boss," or "my boss wouldn't listen to me."

Feedback requires an underlying culture of trust where it can grow and thrive. For a person to give you honest feedback, they need to trust that you will listen to them, and not retaliate if you disagree with their input, particularly if you are their boss. To really hear feedback from another person, one needs to trust that the person giving them feedback has their best interest at heart, and that their motivation is to be helpful. Where there is a high level of fear and low trust, feedback will not occur.

As leaders ascend the career ladder, they become more isolated from feedback and can become similar to those pilots mentioned earlier. At that career altitude, when leaders stop listening to feedback, or people are afraid to give them feedback, their careers or their companies can crash and burn.

What is your organization doing to create a culture of trust where feedback can occur as a valued process for continuous improvement - individually and for the organization? Do people that you work with feel comfortable giving you feedback?

About the Author

David F. Swink

David Swink is Chief Creative Officer of Strategic Interactions, Inc., based in Fairfax, Virginia.

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