Effective Use of Power in Aviation SMS
Aviation safety managers around the world are charged with implementing required aviation safety management systems (SMS). SMS implementations affect entire organizations and not simply a single department, such as:
- Flight ops;
- Ground ops; or
Everyone at your organization must be on-board the SMS train, otherwise, you will continue to receive findings whenever the SMS auditor visits your organization.
Safety managers have a universal problem. They must serve as change agents and sell SMS principles to others who are not buying into "this latest fad."
Resistance to Safety Managers' Message
There is considerable resistance to change for employees who are used to "doing business the same way we've always done it." SMS is a threat to status quo. Having top management's commitment (often a simple signature on the safety policy) isn't enough to persuade old-school department heads that "this is the way we are doing business from now on."
Have you read...
- How to Reduce Resistance to Aviation SMS with Difficult Employees
- 4 Tools to Find Resistance to Your Aviation SMS
- Checklist to Quantify Resistance to Your Aviation SMS
This article discusses why aviation safety managers fail to effectively use power in their daily struggle to implement SMS.
Understanding Power and Authority
Merriam dictionary defines power as "the ability or right to control people or things."
Merriam dictionary also defines authority as "the power to give orders or make decisions: the power or right to direct or control someone or something"
Safety managers having "authority" doesn't necessarily mean they have power. For our discussion, we know that safety managers have the right to control people or things for the sake of organizational safety, but the problem lies in their ability.
Failure of Safety Managers to Understand Power
We see that power is the ability or right to control people or things. Safety managers often fail in their ability to effect change within an organization. The ability to effect change comes with power. Often we read about a school girl or another person changing their world for a better place. These people effect social change without authority, yet they have power.
Let's look into the types of power. Understanding types of power will allow safety managers to more effectively change the safety cultures of "difficult organizations."
Do you have a difficult safety culture at your airline or airport?
Related Aviation Safety Culture Articles...
- What Is Safety Culture in the Aviation Industry?
- 5 Ways to Constantly Improve Safety Culture
- 20 Indicators What Good Aviation Safety Culture Looks Like [With Free Checklist]
Most Commonly Accepted Types of Power
Years ago while studying organizational behavior in college, I came across formal studies of power. I was intrigued. My background as a military officer failed to educate me as to the real components of power. I understood authority but didn't understand power.
There are several types of power. Aviation safety managers will find it useful to understand different types of power because safety managers use power differently as their situation dictates. Having a full awareness of these types of power, and why they are validated sources of power will make safety managers more effective.
Types of power an individual possesses include:
- Legitimate Power;
- Reward Power;
- Coercive Power;
- Referent Power; and
- Expert Power.
What Is Legitimate Power to Safety Managers?
Aviation safety managers' power is often represented in the organizational chart. Check to ensure your organizational chart indicates that the safety manager or director of safety has direct access to the accountable executive or board of directors if this applies to your organization.
Besides being on the org chart, safety managers should ensure that all employees witness their legitimate power in other ways. Being seen with top management on weekly "walk-about" inspections and attending meetings with other senior-level managers are two activities we recommend for safety managers.
While safety managers may enjoy legitimate power, we commonly see they possess little power to influence aviation organizations based on legitimate power alone. This is because they are dealing with many managers that are sitting at the same or higher level in the organizational chart.
Legitimate power may serve safety managers well with employees; however, when there are conflicting messages or signals with employees' direct supervisors and safety managers, you can expect that employees' direct supervisors will exert more influence because supervisors enjoy other types of power that commonly outweigh safety managers' legitimate power, such as reward power.
Related Aviation Safety Manager Articles...
- Career Advice for Aspiring Safety Managers
- What Makes a Good Aviation Safety Manager?
- 2 Reasons Top Safety Managers Fail in Aviation SMS
What Is Reward Power to Safety Managers?
On first sight, reward power may appear very limited to safety managers. Reward power comes from the ability to bestow "rewards" such as raises, time off, preferred vacation schedules or promotions. To reverse the benefits approach, reward power can also inflict negative rewards, such as "lack of promotion," or assignment to the least desirable jobs.
Simply because safety managers are not typically in the most favorable positions to exert reward power, there are still opportunities. Many employees are positively influenced by praise and compliments, which are also considered "rewards."
As we see, managers and supervisors are in the best position to use reward power over their employees. Safety managers may subtly influence other managers by using reward power. One common approach is to praise managers openly in safety newsletters for their department's performance.
Safety managers can position themselves to wield more reward power by tracking employee safety performance. We work with airlines that use SMS Pro to track employee safety performance. In order for this strategy to work, you will need top management support and the expectation that employee raises and promotions are directly tied to their safety performance activities. These activities may include:
- Completing all assigned corrective and preventive actions on time;
- Reading and acknowledging all required safety messages;
- How many safety reports they have submitted to the SMS;
- Did they attend all safety meetings?
- Is all training and required qualifications up to date?
- Have I acknowledged I understand my duties and responsibilities to the SMS?
- Have I recently (within one year) reviewed relevant SMS policies and procedures?
Monitoring employee safety performance makes great business sense and bestows considerable amounts of "legitimate" reward power to safety managers.
Related Employee Performance Monitoring Articles...
- 4 Tips to Monitor Employee Safety Performance in Aviation SMS
- How Employees Should Be Participating in Your SMS
- How to Motivate Employees in Safety Management Systems
What Is Coercive Power to Safety Managers?
Whenever safety managers can punish or threaten others, they have coercive power. Coercive power should seldom be used and is not effective to implement lasting safety culture changes. Personally, I become rebellious when others attempt to exert coercive power over me. This is not the desired safety culture you are trying to promote.
There may be times when it becomes necessary to use coercive power in order to deal with recalcitrant employees or managers. Employees that are coerced into obedience or performance will only comply when there is a threat of them being caught. In the short run, this may work, but ensure that their compliance is rewarded to reinforce positive behaviors.
What Is Referent Power to Safety Managers?
Safety managers that are well-liked and respected possess inherent referent power. If you have the natural gift of persuasion, then you will score high on having referent power. Charismatic leaders have the ability to share a vision with others and to persuade others to accept this vision as their own or to become a part of this vision.
Referent power is more powerful than reward power and coercive power. Once your abilities to grant favors is exhausted, or you no longer have the big stick to bend others into compliance, your power is gone. Consequently, the most effective safety managers exercise referent power to promote the SMS vision to the airline or airport.
Not all managers possess natural referent power; however, referent power can be a learned skill. I recommend starting with a self-help book, such as How to Win Friends and Influence People.
What Is Expert Power to Safety Managers?
Safety managers who know their jobs well and are also able to articulate SMS requirements tend to possess tremendous expert power. Many professionals demonstrate expert power by using special vocabularies, such as doctors, lawyers, and aviation safety managers. Safety managers' vocabularies revolve around risk management.
Safety managers must demonstrate their expertise in order to appear credible. The rest of the organization and SMS auditors will view safety managers as being more effective than those who are not able to communicate SMS requirements and best practices. After all, who wants to follow someone if they cannot demonstrate that they know where we are going?
I cannot stress this enough! Knowing the subject material is not enough for a safety manager. Safety managers must be able to communicate their knowledge in layman's terms to lead their airline or airport to SMS compliance. Otherwise, you are simply a "safety manager filling a seat."
In order to teach a concept to another person, the most effective teacher knows the subject matter exceptionally well. If you have doubts about your expertise, ask yourself: "Can I teach this topic to another person?"
When I found myself in a teaching position, such as an SMS Admin course, I had to know the material frontwards and backwards. In short, you don't know a topic well unless you can teach it.
Safety managers are expected to understand risk management processes. I know many safety managers who perform well at their jobs, but they have difficulties explaining the logic and background behind their company's risk management activities. If you can speak the talk, you will earn expert power in your organization. Educate yourself and understand SMS topics well enough so you can teach others. When you teach others, you will be seen as an authority.
Department heads are subject matter experts in their area of operations. Safety managers are experts in risk management. If you can speak "risk management lingo," you will earn respect with department heads and gain expert power.
Related Aviation Risk Management Articles...
- What Is the Modern Aviation Risk Management Cycle
- Going from Reactive to Predictive Risk Management in Aviation SMS
- 20 Questions for Your Safety Risk Management Process in Aviation SMS [With Free Checklists]
Safety Managers Benefit Most by Using Referent and Expert Power
Aviation safety managers' highest priority is to achieve regulatory compliance with SMS requirements. From our examination of the different power bases, they are most apt to accomplish their mission by using referent and expert power. These two types of power are most likely to:
- Motivate other employees;
- Generate true and lasting commitment to SMS goals and objectives;
- Reduce policing or shepherding employees towards compliance; and
- Influence others in a most positive fashion.
Final Thoughts for Safety Managers' Knowledge of Power
Safety managers are change managers.
People do not like change.
Safety managers must understand how to use power to positively influence people to accept change.
Safety managers fail to use power correctly because they don't understand their power bases.
Safety managers who don't know how to use their power will not achieve organizational objectives.
The two most important bases of power are within your control: referent power and expert power.
Grow your power today!
Exert your expert power as an SMS professional. Learn how best-in-class aviation safety management system software will make your airline or airport more efficient. SMS software should make you look "like you know what you are doing!"
Published October 2015. Last updated December 2019.