A Textbook Case for Disaster: Psychological Safety and the Boeing 737 Max

Key Takeaways 

  • Promoting a culture where team members feel safe to speak up with candor to disagree or point out problems is not only healthy for organizations, but it can be essential for thwarting negative outcomes with potentially disastrous results.
  • Leaders have a responsibility to promote this psychologically safe culture, and there are proven strategies to do that.

“Would you put your family on a [737] MAX simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t.”

“I’ll be shocked if the FAA passes this turd.”

“This is a joke. This airplane is ridiculous.” [1]

As the mourning continued after the loss of hundreds of lives in the two Boeing 737 Max crashes in late 2018 and 2019, attention quickly turned to understanding why these tragedies had occurred and what might have been done to prevent them.

As often happens, attention began to focus on Boeing, Inc., the aircraft’s manufacturer. While the investigation initially focused on pilot error, mechanical issues, weather and other aspects of aviation safety, the question of whether the culture at Boeing could have contributed to the crashes began to emerge.

Having recently delved into the emerging concept of psychological safety in my own professional development, I wondered whether or not it could have played a role in the 737 Max accidents. As I discovered, the lack of psychological safety at Boeing was most assuredly a significant factor in the 737 Max crisis.

Dr. Amy Edmondson is the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School, as well as the author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. One of the foremost experts in the field, Dr. Edmondson defines psychological safety as “the assurance that one can speak up, offer ideas, point out problems, or deliver bad news without fear of retribution.”

She also highlights the organizational culture at Boeing as a “…textbook case of how the absence of psychological safety…can lead to disastrous results.”[2]

Recently released internal Boeing emails display a pattern of employees complaining to one another with messages like those at the beginning of this piece, criticizing Boeing leadership’s pervasive focus on aggressive production schedules and keeping costs down by avoiding things like additional pilot training and familiarization on the 737 Max’s new and technologically complex avionics systems.

Why did these employees only complain to each other instead of raising their concerns to Boeing leadership?

Fear.

Mounting evidence points to a culture at Boeing where employees didn’t want to be seen as raising safety concerns or otherwise ‘rocking the boat’ by disagreeing with Boeing’s leaders out of fear they would be the first to go if layoffs came.[3]

These disturbing findings lead us to ask what leaders can learn from the 737 Max tragedies and what they can do to establish a culture of psychological safety. Thankfully, there are some relatively simple — yet effective — solutions.

Dr. Edmondson outlines three specific steps leaders can take to ensure employees feel that their honest thoughts are valued:

  1. Set the stage by making sure everyone on the team knows you’re aware of the tensions that exist between goals like profits and results and absolutes like safety and quality.
  2. Insist on input by professionally yet directly putting teammates on the spot by asking them for their thoughts and then being ready to hear what they have to say — even if you disagree with it.
  3. Appreciate messengers and show this appreciation by not reacting negatively to bad news or disagreement. Leader reactions will set the foundation for future engagements — respectful and measured reactions will elicit continued candor, but negative and emotionally charged reactions may lead teammates to shut down and stop providing it.[4]

Sandra J. Sucher, a Joseph L. Rice, III Faculty Fellow and professor of management at Harvard Business School, additionally encourages leaders to better frame the situation by accurately describing the nature of the problem that the organization is facing.

By accurately framing the problem as Professor Sucher urges, leaders can ensure employee actions and responses to the situation will be focused more accurately on the actual problem versus other symptoms that may not be the root cause.[5]

Tragically, disasters involving loss of life or property sometimes lead us to more keenly finding solutions to prevent future occurrences. Leaders can learn from the Boeing 737 Max crashes and be more deliberate in ensuring they’re promoting psychologically safe cultures that encourage candor and disagreement that may actually avert tragic outcomes.

References

[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-01-10/-incredibly-damning-boeing-messages-show-employee-unease-on-max

[2] https://hbr.org/2019/05/boeing-and-the-importance-of-encouraging-employees-to-speak-up

[3] https://fortune.com/2019/10/04/boeing-737-max-culture-muilenburg/

[4] https://hbr.org/2020/01/when-employees-are-open-with-each-other-but-not-management

[5] https://hbr.org/2019/03/how-boeing-should-have-responded-to-the-737-max-safety-crisis

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.