The BLOG: Voices

How to avoid a crisis

When U.S. economic leaders gathered in April 2000 to celebrate ten years of prosperity, Alan Greenspan announced that they had figured out the model for success. “I do not believe we can go wrong,” he said. Well, he was wrong.

After that meeting, the economy was hit with two recessions, the largest financial crisis in 75 years, weak growth and a decrease in median household income. As the book The Big Short provocatively details, several people saw it coming, but no one listened.

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I do not believe we can go wrong?”

I remember feeling very confident submitting an annual financial budget at work. The budget included aggressive revenue projections and even more aggressive expense allocations. It was based on hope more than strategy. I ended up being wrong. Several people saw it coming, but I didn’t listen.

Have you ever been unable to get people to listen when you’ve seen the storm coming?

In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that, because a culture of deferring to authority can undermine the ability for truth to be heard, an airline’s culture can be one of the primary factors leading to a plane crash.

As I’ve written about before, success hinges on being able to confront the brutal facts. And it requires attention from both sides: those who need to face the truth as well as those who need to be able to communicate in such a way that the problem is heard, understood and taken seriously.

Practicing Respectful Assertiveness

I was curious to learn more about how the airline industry is dealing with this issue, and last week I had the opportunity to spend some time talking about it with Captain David Farmer.  Capt. Farmer has over 30 years as a commercial pilot for Delta Airlines. He is a former instructor pilot and has held many key leadership positions within the Air Line Pilots Association.

Capt. Farmer is no stranger to crisis management and avoidance, whether it is at 35,000 feet or in an office setting.

One of the keys to mitigating a crisis or an accident is what he calls “respectful assertiveness.” He says that effective communication is critical in the cockpit. While the Captain is decision maker, when a decision or lack of action seems problematic, the corporate expectation is for the copilot (the subordinate) to speak up. This communication needs to respect authority while also being direct and courageous.

Here are the steps to respectful assertiveness, according to Capt. Farmer:

1) Use the “I” pronoun and state your concern. When you make comments like, “That thunderstorm ahead looks like it is increasing,” it’s an observation that requires no response or action. A more assertive approach: “I’m concerned our current flight path is going to take us too close to the thunderstorm ahead.” Using “I” is respectful while also establishing ownership and accountability.

2) Ask thought-generating questions. Direct, open-ended questions allow another person to consider his/her point-of-view. This minimizes the chances of someone becoming defensive or dismissive. A respectfully assertive question might be, “Which direction do you think is best to avoid this thunderstorm?” It’s not an opinion disguised as a question; it is a genuinely curious question that forces a specific response.

3) Obtain an agreement, then execute the solution. After the concern and solutions have been discussed, the solution still needs to be executed. Here, someone might say, “Deviating to the left does look like the shortest route around the thunderstorm. Do you want me to let air traffic control know we are deviating to the left?” The “you” and “me” convey the process was a collaboration.

Finally, a few general points to remember:

Be explicit about opinions. Masking feelings of anger or frustration often leads to passive aggressive behavior. Hidden resentment revealed in covert comments like “I thought you knew” or “It’s probably not my place to say this” typically lead to confusion, conflict and tension. Explicit opinions sound like this: “I’m feeling uncomfortable with this,” or “I think you need to provide an appropriate resolution.”

Use a friendly tone. Non-verbal communication can say more than the words themselves. Being respectfully assertive means using a tone that is calm and caring. An anxious, antagonistic or patronizing tone will override whatever attempts you make to use appropriate words.

Success never lasts indefinitely. Everyone is sure to face crashes and crises. Will you communicate in a way that mitigates or enables it?

Matt Norman

Matt Norman

Matt Norman is president of Norman & Associates, which is the largest provider of Dale Carnegie Training programs in North America. He is the author of several articles published by Dale Carnegie Training and Training Magazine on organizational effectiveness and personal growth. He blogs weekly at