In sports, it’s often said that talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships. That same thinking applies to the cockpit. Unfortunately, it’s not always the way things unfold. For example, in approximately 70% of airline accidents studied, at least one flight crewmember knew there was a problem yet could not find a way to effectively have the issue considered. As a pilot, you may have faced a similar situation more than once in your career where a captain or even first officer was hard to deal with.
In the cockpit, there are situations where one of the pilots wonders when and how they could convince and influence the other to re-evaluate their position. Some captains feel so confident in themselves and their decisions that they do not listen to the other pilot's good opinions or they just refuse to acknowledge that it could be a good idea. Don’t despair. It is possible to open the mind of an egocentric, headstrong, and arrogant captain (and in some cases, a first officer).
Sometimes it seems like the captain always ends up being the protagonist and only Savior of the situation. While the vision and knowledge of the captain were key to solving the situation, in the vast majority of these events, the captain succeeded with the crew's help and teamwork. Usually, when we think of great leaders, we visualize the person as an independent being. Still, we rarely picture the extraordinary team that surrounds them and has an influence on them. Although some Captains are so sure of themselves that they end up rejecting others' ideas, there is a chance to change even the most obstinate pilot's mind.
Pilots, in general, go through a strict selection process when applying for a position in an airline. Many people assume that those who are finally selected possess the skills, personality, and qualities necessary to become efficient professionals and, eventually, future leaders. This isn’t always the case.
For example, a bossy manager may sometimes be docile, or an ambitious partner may become empathetic. If an authoritarian manager is interacting with a superior, then he will become humble. If a contentious partner is facing a critical problem, he may become collaborative. Even the most rigid person can be flexible at times, and even the most open-minded person can be closed off as well.
Obstinate pilots just won’t compromise. Once they have made a decision, their mind can be as hard as a diamond and they do not consider any other opinion. Still, their viewpoint can become flexible if you take a different tactic. For example, asking questions instead of providing answers can be the solution to a pilot's defensive behavior. You are not saying what should be done. Instead, you let them know that they are still in control of the discussion while motivating them to share their thoughts. Be sure to ask questions like "What if?" and "Should we? to encourage creativity when looking for solutions.
We have all flown with a super confident pilot who, when told something they do not already know, behaves defensively. A better way to act is to let the pilot recognize the gaps in their knowledge themselves. Trying to explain something complex can be an embarrassing experience for some people.
Sometimes pilots just don’t like the other person they are flying alongside. Pilots in this scenario are intent on winning at any cost, so trying to get them to re-evaluate their opinion is not a good strategy.
Egocentric pilots believe they are unique and are not open when you point out that they are wrong. But by approaching them cautiously, they can recognize that they made a mistake and are not perfect. Egocentrics are generally said to have low self-esteem. They are in constant search of status and approval, so they turn hostile when their fragile egos are threatened. But you can draw on their need to be admired, neutralize their instinctive tendency to shut down when criticized. These pilots can demonstrate humility. They may even believe that they are brilliant in acknowledging their mistakes. The way to get there is by highlighting your respect for them.
If you want an obstinate pilot to change their perspective, try praising them on one of their strengths, such as creativity. Pilots, as well as people in general, have multiple identities. When we feel confident about one of our strengths, we are more likely to accept our flaws. Usually, captains are less aggressive and less selfish after being told that they are fun and exciting.
When a captain does not have the wisdom to question his convictions, first officers need the courage to step up and convince them to do the right thing. Airlines need powerful captains with leadership, but they also need first officers who can stand firm when they are sure of their ideas. These pilots can effectively face overconfident, unreasonable, or egocentric captains, have their voices heard, and influence outcomes in a positive way.
Airline Captain at the main airline group in Latin America, with over 16 years of flight operations and customer service experience in the aviation industry. MBA Candidate pursuing a concentration in Leadership at the largest university in the United Kingdom.