Home Leadership Does Your Company Need a Sterile Cockpit?

Does Your Company Need a Sterile Cockpit?

by Dr. Linda Henman

Airline captains don’t have an “open door policy, and there’s a good reason for that. Aside from the obvious terrorist and crazy passenger threats, airline pilots realize they face another adversary: treacherous interruptions.

In 1974 an Eastern Airlines flight carrying seventy-eight passengers and four crew members crashed in dense fog during an instrument approach into Charlotte, killing seventy-one. The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the flight crew’s lack of altitude awareness and poor cockpit discipline caused the crash.

After reviewing this accident and a series of others, the FAA determined that most airline accidents occurred as a result of an interruption during the time pilots were going through the checklist. Therefore, in 1981 the FAA imposed the “Sterile Cockpit Rule” that states that pilots must refrain from non-essential activities and conversations during critical phases of flight.

Organizational mishaps happen in much the same way. In most companies, the flood of disruptions, emails, voicemails, and meetings has taken its toll on productivity and efficiency. People complain about the need for more time management skills, but what they really need is their company’s equivalent to a sterile cockpit rule.

Here’s what some of my best clients do:

  • Leaders have designated certain times of the day, week, or month as sacrosanct. No one can schedule meetings, plan client trips, or take vacation during these times. For example, my investment management clients schedule around earnings calls each quarter and the open and close of the market each day.
  • Bosses have outlawed the “cc” function on emails. Only those people directly affected can see an email. This rule alone as given back each person on the “cc” list about two hours a week.
  • Bosses have told their direct reports not to email them at all unless they have requested notification of an event or decision.
  • Some companies no long supply chairs for their meetings. When people have to stand for the entire meeting, the meetings tend to get shorter.
  • Frequently leaders create their own sterile cockpit rules. For instance, a closed door means “no interruptions,” or bosses notify executive assistants not to let anyone disturb them during critical times.

This list offers five ways leaders can take better control of their own time management, but it doesn’t mention enough about how their behaviors compromise the productivity of those in their chain of command. For example, often leaders excel at multi-talking and create order during chaos. They don’t mind interruptions because they quickly address the disturbance, fix what’s wrong, and immediately return to their previous tasks. Because they don’t mind this sort of break—and often find it relieves boredom—they assume their direct reports react similarly. And they’re wrong.

When I do 360 interviews I usually encounter some version of “My boss jumps in and fixes things,” “I can’t get anything done with all these shifting priorities,” or “I spend so much time on emails, voicemail, and meetings that I can’t get my job done.” These distractions indicate bosses are not doing everything possible to position their direct reports for success and may need to consider ways to create a sterile cockpit for their own people. It all begins with the boss asking one question: “What can I do to make you more productive?”

You have nothing to lose from experimenting with a sterile cockpit rule for yourself and your team. The airlines have written exceptions to the rule, like unexplained smoke in the cabin, unusual sounds, etc. You can do the same. But exceptions to a rule make no sense if you don’t have the rule to start with.

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