Employee Resistance in Aviation SMS Implementations
The majority of aviation service providers are required to implement formal aviation safety management systems (SMS) per the November 2006 ICAO mandate. This is a requirement. SMS implementation is not optional for most operators.
Just as the SMS implementation is not optional, employees do not have the luxury of shirking their duties and responsibilities to the SMS.
Without question, employee resistance in aviation SMS has become a major roadblock to successful SMS implementation. Employee resistance doesn't simply mean "front line employees," but rather all employees. This includes upper management (executives) and middle management (department heads) resistance .
Resistance can be a frustrating nuisance or a crippling plague for companies. Either way, aviation safety managers are constantly asking, "How do I get employees on board with the safety program?"
Related Articles on Resistance to Aviation SMS Implementations
- How to Reduce Resistance to Aviation SMS with Difficult Employees
- 3 Tips to Discover Resistance to Aviation SMS - with Checklists
- 4 Tools to Find Resistance to Your Aviation SMS - with Free Resources
Motivating Employees Should Be Easier!
At first glance, one would think that employees would be the most ardent advocates for implementing additional safety measures. After all, enhanced safety initiatives offer employees more benefits than any other group. Not only will the workplace become safer, but the "aviation system" as a whole becomes safer for these employees for when they switch roles from being "aviation service providers" to becoming "aviation service consumers."
In theory, the problem of motivating employees to participate in your aviation SMS implementation is quite simple:
- Priorities; and
But creating the right incentives, influencing priorities, and changing Norms is a confounding, never-ending task. To compound this problem, perform a Google search on this subject and most of the information you find is uselessly vague, with tips like "make safety an important part of your organization's culture," or "be champions of safety." All this advice does is repeat the initial problem - how do I do it?
Here are five ways to motivate employees to participate more in aviation SMS implementations.
1 - Include Safety Performance in Employee Reviews
Do you include safety performance requirements in your employee performance reviews? Most likely, you don't. Based on a sampling of approximately 300 aviation service providers that have implemented SMS within the past dozen years, I can easily say that fewer than five percent of operators explicitly include safety program participation as part of an employee's annual performance review.
Without safety performance reviews, employees will have very little accountability for safety behavior. Without accountability, nearly all employees will put a marginal effort into the safety program.
The single greatest step you can take right now to motivate employees to participate in the aviation SMS is to include safety performance in employee performance reviews. With aviation SMS software, this is relatively easy to develop. Manually doing it is harder but not impossible.
The general steps are:
- Choose which employee safety data is most important to performance;
- Implement a means of tracking this data;
- Inform employees that you will be monitoring the safety metrics; and
- Include these metrics throughout performance reviews (i.e. DON'T have separate safety/quality performance reviews, have them intermixed).
Related Aviation SMS Articles
- 4 Tips to Monitor Employee Safety Performance in Aviation SMS
- How to Show Employees That Your Aviation SMS Is Effective
- Why Employees Don't Care about Your Aviation SMS - and How to Fix it!
For a full walk-thorough of how to include safety performance in employee reviews, see this free guide:
2 - Demonstrate Return on Investment of SMS Implementation
Upper management is beholden to investors, and probably the most common resistance from upper management comes down to the "bottom line," money. In such cases, upper managers push performance over preparedness, and aren't willing to expend the resources needed to implement a compliant and performing aviation SMS.
Demonstrating a return on investment of the SMS should pique their interest and motivate them to get on board with the organization's SMS. Demonstrating a return on investment for SMS implementations is not something that is discussed often, but it is actually not too difficult to do:
- The potential for SMS ROI is very high; and
- Producing the data for ROI is straightforward.
Showing return on investment to resistant upper management is simply a way of speaking their language. There's no need for employees to participate in the aviation SMS out of the altruism of their heart and their concern for safety. What's most important is that all employees:
- Provide needed resources;
- Follow safety policies and procedures;
- Are involved in the SMS' risk management processes; and
- Demonstrate safe behavior.
3 - Involve Employees in Decision Making As Much As Possible
Along with safety performance monitoring, involving front line employees in safety decision making processes is another fantastic method for motivating employees to participate in the aviation SMS.
You should allow employees to:
- Participate in the purchasing of safety equipment;
- Be on investigation teams;
- Be on safety committees;
- Make safety suggestions (which are followed up by management action); and
- Conduct safety evaluations.
When employees are involved in the decision making processes, they begin to take ownership of the SMS. "Owning the program" is exactly the place you want to get to.
Related Articles on Employee SMS Participation
- Aviation SMS Implementation: What’s in It for the Employee?
- How Employees Should Be Participating in Your SMS
- How to Get Employees Participating in Safety Reporting - Aviation SMS
4 - (Quality) Aviation SMS Training
Safety training can do wonders for generating a strong safety awareness, and establishing norms. In the same sense of the expression "you are what you eat," we can say about safety behavior, "you act what you understand." When employees understand why safety behavior is important to themselves, they tend to increase participation and become more vigilant to potential hazards.
Most employees' resistance to the SMS implementation comes from a place of apathy - they might have "knowledge" of safety, but they don't understand why it's important themselves. Quality aviation SMS training will definitely motivate employees to participate in SMS initiatives.
Signs of quality aviation SMS training are:
- Pre and end of course assessments;
- Practical application versus definitions/concepts;
- Tailored to your aviation SMS program;
- More "doing" and less listening (i.e., many hands on activities); and
- Take home materials and references.
The above points are all integral in making training "stick" in employees' minds. In most training courses, employees forget 95% of the training material the moment they leave the class. Which means that nearly all training is a complete waste of money.
5 - Create More Transparency with Safety Issues
In traditional safety programs (before the required aviation SMS), management had no burden to share safety information with employees. Employees may submit hazard reports and management could either ignore the safety report or treat the underlying issue. Once the safety issue has been treated, there was no expectation from management to communicate to employees the nature of the safety concern or the actions taken to remedy the root cause. As a result, management lost out on some excellent opportunities to increase safety by openly communicating to employees "the safety message."
In short, traditional safety programs lacked transparency as it relates to safety information. Developing, or in some cases, updating your transparency policy is a quick way to motivate employees. It's something you can do right now. When employees are in the dark, it creates the precedent that the SMS implementation is a "management thing." Talk about destroying safety culture...
Having an open book about safety issues is important for establishing the Human Factor Norm that safety is everybody's business. Steps you can right now are:
- Decide how your company can be more transparent;
- Send a company-wide email or have a company-wide meeting reasserting company commitment to transparency and notifying of impending changes; and
- Follow through to demonstrate that the transparency is real.
Related Articles on Transparency in Aviation SMS
- Overcoming Resistance to Change Through Transparency in Aviation SMS
- A Key to Transparency in Aviation SMS
- Why Transparency Promotes Safety Culture in Aviation SMS
Final Thoughts on Motivating Employee SMS Participation
You may find it "convenient" to recognize that you have an employee participation problem and then either:
- ignore the problem; or
- hope nobody notices the issue and calls you on it for not addressing the root causes.
Employee participation in the aviation SMS is very serious business! The time and money your organization invests will not bear fruit without employee participation. Don't wait to motivate!
Encourage all employees to report every safety incident or potential hazard. This most certainly includes every minor incident and close call. These minor incidents and close calls are the fodder that performant SMS implementations thrive on. There is a continuous improvement requirement in every SMS implementation. As employees report these minor incidents and close calls, management can react and:
- reinforce risk controls in depth; or
- redesign procedures and processes to make operations more safe and efficient.
Don't wait to motivate. The longer you wait, the more money your organization wastes!
Before you do anything, you may need to find out exactly how motivated employees are. Use these safety culture survey templates to assess your safety culture:
Last updated in May 2022.