Aviation Risk Management Is More than Data and Processes
In most aviation safety management systems (SMS), the single most important factor for superior risk management capabilities often, unfortunately, receives the least attention: a mature safety risk culture – which we can confidently say is the collective risk management attitude of an organization.
Experience and research tell us that the risk attitude of employees significantly influences whether an aviation SMS delivers the level of safety that it promises.
Risk attitude is under-addressed for three reasons:
- Aviation SMS implementations inherently involve complex interactions between regulations, documentation, and people;
- Implementing the proper policies and procedures, hazard identification training, safety reporting system, risk management processes, and bureaucratic structure to meet regulatory requirements can be a huge undertaking; and
- Risk attitude is extremely difficult to quantify and document – in other words, auditors are unlikely to be impressed unless you find a good way of displaying risk attitude data.
In so many words, aviation safety managers lack the time, guidance, concern, and/or incentive to focus on the risk attitude of individual employees. Risk management processes are performed by people, and risk attitudes exist at individual, group, corporate, organizational, and national levels.
Related Aviation Risk Management Articles
- 3 Main Components of Aviation Risk Management
- What Is the Process of Risk Management in Aviation SMS
- How to Practice Reactive, Proactive, and Predictive Risk Management in Aviation SMS
It’s important to actively identify, assess, and describe (as with any risk) the attitudes in your organization. This is the process of understanding risk attitudes’ impact on your organization, and by understanding them you can manage and modify them.
What Is Risk Attitude in Aviation SMS?
Risk attitude in aviation SMS is, basically, "attitudes that drive behavior" – specifically in relation to risk.
Different people will respond differently to the same situation, depending on their risk management attitude. A situation that seems too risky for one person will seem acceptable to another. The thing to understand about risk management attitude is that it exists on a spectrum.
In a previous article on risk management attitudes in aviation SMS implementations, we discussed this spectrum by identifying 4 different attitudes along the spectrum:
- Maximizer: values personal experience, competency, and abilities to maximize reactive risk management (identification, response, and mitigation), and is willing to accept the risk so long as lessons are learned;
- Pragmatist: focuses more on adaptable risk management and strong safety culture to mitigate incidents more than the “predictability” of future events (such as via data);
- Traditionalist: values a top-down approach to managing risk, with a focus on bureaucratic processes and proactive risk management strategies; and
- Conservator: most concerned with predictive risk management via complex data analysis, data trends, and comprehensive policies and procedures.
The point of these risk attitude spectrum landmarks is not to simply identify which one you are, but to understand where your tendency is, and in which situations elicit different risk attitudes in your and/or your employees.
As others have pointed out, the overall most effective aviation risk management strategy will focus on all 4 points. It’s also important to point out that by addressing risk attitudes at all levels of your organization, you are naturally addressing all 4 attitudes.
Related Aviation Risk Management Attitude Articles
- Learn 4 Aviation Risk Management Attitudes. Which Is Best? What Is Yours?
- The 13th Aviation SMS Human Factor -- Adopting Risk Attitude
- Why Safety Risk Management Pillar Rocks in Aviation SMS - Best Practices
What Does Risk Attitude Look Like, Why Is It Important?
It’s critical to point out that attitudes can be both a choice and not a choice.
In response to many different things – your experience, education, intuition, etc. – you will choose the kind of approach (attitude) to take toward risk. However, there is more to risk attitude than this, and it is expressed in two ways:
- Normal Environment: in the absence of threat or perceived risk, your chosen risk attitude largely drives your behavior. Your attitude is not in response to just the environment, but a multitude of the above-referenced elements, and you are free to modify your risk attitude as you please.
- Perceived Threat: when a threat is perceived however, your chosen attitude can be completely superseded by an automatic response attitude that is very different from your “chosen” attitude. For example, regardless of your existing risk management attitude, in a dangerous situation, you may be beset by a fight, flee, or freeze response.
Beyond this, risk management attitudes are expressed in a multitude of ways. Such as:
- The degree to which employees step outside the prescribed procedures to meet specific situations.
- The types of training that are stressed for employees (i.e. procedural training, reactive techniques, identification techniques, etc.).
- The types of tools management employs in its aviation SMS (e.g., sophisticated data mining tools; superior aviation safety reporting tools, etc.).
This list could go on and on, but hopefully, you get the prevailing idea: aviation SMS risk management attitudes are ubiquitous in every level of an aviation SMS, and motivate every decision made. Making decisions without understanding why they are being made is like landing a plane in white-out fog. Not good.
Emotional Intelligence’s Role in Risk Management
With risk management attitudes, emotional intelligence is important. Emotions can help or hurt people in their decision-making abilities. In other words, emotions matter. It is also for this reason that the existing norms in the work environment can significantly influence safety behavior.
In an emotionally toxic environment where employees throw each other “under the bus,” or where management intimidates or is punitive by default, the safety culture will suffer. In such environments, employees will tend to simply “react,” rather than conduct behavior with a more rational, considered, and chosen approach.
Hence, emotional intelligence, which in the context of risk attitude is the ability for employees to actively be cognizant and choose their risk attitude even in the face of perceived threat or toxic environment. Emotional intelligence can be taught and is something extremely relevant to advanced aviation SMS Human Factors training topics, such as:
- How the brain responds to threat;
- Decision making;
- Situational awareness;
- Stress performance; and
- Arousal and attention.
Related Aviation Risk Management Attitude Articles
- 4 Pillars | What Is Safety Risk Management
- Most Common Aviation Risk Management Challenges at Airlines & Airports
- Going from Reactive to Predictive Risk Management in Aviation SMS
Final Thought: How to Manage Risk Attitude in Aviation SMS Programs
Risk management attitudes CAN be incorporated into quantifiable, bureaucratic processes of aviation SMS implementations. Doing so will make airport safety, aircraft safety, and the overall aviation safety environment better understood.
There are a couple of ways to effectively get a grasp of risk management attitudes:
- Safety surveys: asking yes/no or multiple choice risk attitude questions is a fantastic way to gather risk attitude data about individuals and the program as a whole;
- Employee reviews: through employee reviews and/or informal discussion, managers can take notes about risk attitude – while not as “objective” as safety surveys it is still another fairly dependable source to gather information; and
- Consider the focus of the existing structure and decision-making processes of your SMS program, and you will have a good idea of where on the risk attitude spectrum your organization falls.
Safety culture is driven by management's attitude to employee hazard reporting. A non-punitive reporting policy offers employees confidence and assurance that your SMS is designed to promote safety and not attribute blame. Below are some great non-punitive reporting policy templates.
Last updated December 2023.