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Authority Gradient refers to the established, and/or perceived, command and decision-making power hierarchy in a Team, Crew or Group situation, and also how balanced the distribution of this power is experienced within the Team, Crew or Group. Concentration of power in one person leads to a steep gradient, while more democratic and inclusive involvement of others results in a shallow gradient.
Authority is not always associated with the competence to use such authority effectively, and it may be denoted by Rank, defined by Role, adopted through Ability and/or appropriated by force of character. In terms of responsibility for decision-making, authority may also be thrust reluctantly onto another person (knowingly or unknowingly) by colleagues who shirk responsibility or feel under-confident.
(Extreme) Steep Authority Gradient
When a team leader has an overbearing, dominant and dictatorial style of management, the team members will experience a steep authority gradient. Team members will view such leaders as overly opinionated, stubborn, and aggressive. When such conditions exist, expressing concerns, questioning decisions, or even simply clarifying instructions will require considerable determination as any comments will often be met with criticism. Team members may then perceive their input as devalued or unwelcome and cease to offer anything; and, in extreme cases, cease to participate completely.
Steep Authority gradients act as barriers to team involvement, reducing the flow of feedback, halting cooperation, and preventing creative ideas for threat analyses and problem solving. Only the most assertive, confident, and sometimes equally dominant team members will feel able to challenge authority. Authoritarian leaders are likely to consider any type of feedback as a challenge and respond aggressively; thereby reinforcing or steepening the gradient further.
Authoritarian leaders are often described as “goal orientated” at the expense of “people orientation”. They may themselves consider that this is the case, but by denying themselves the resources available (skills, knowledge and motivational support of other team members) their actions are self-defeating and goals are less likely to be attained.
(Extreme) Shallow Authority Gradient
A “paternalistic” leader who only pursues a course of action that has been democratically agreed, following equal opportunity for each and every team member to give input, will have reduced the authority gradient to zero. Decision-making will be extremely slow, and by giving equal opportunities to all, irrespective of experience levels, some of those decisions will be wrong. This in itself can undermine the leader’s authority in the eyes of more experienced team members and possibly lead to their disengagement.
Such circumstances, and subsequent breakdown of communication, may also result in some team members acting independently of the leader. Responsibilities may become blurred.
Confusion over Authority Gradient
In some situations a shallow authority gradient may exist solely through the composition of the team and/or the type of task being conducted, rather than through an overly democratic leadership style.
Aircraft captains often fly with other captains. Flying trainers and examiners will fly with fully qualified pilots; sometimes, these trainers will be under observation themselves from another trainer. Safety auditors may be observing crew behaviours, yet be senior pilots themselves. Parallel situations also exist in air traffic control, maintenance and airport operations – where experienced personnel fulfill tasks for which they are over-qualified and supervisors, instructors, auditors and examiners may be observing or playing and active role. Similarly, a generally inexperienced team member may be highly valued for a specific skill, and even employed solely for this reason; other team members can then easily over-estimate this person’s capabilities through generalisation and association.
Whenever there is a lack of clarity in roles, responsibilities and capabilities, it is likely that decisions and actions will not be taken effectively; some team members may not participate when expected, and other team members may act independently towards different goals.
Conformity is a word often used to describe certain situations in which team members who could have contributed useful safety information, at the time, failed to do so. Authority gradients can play a key role in facilitating attitudes of conformity amongst team members.
- Obedience – this is often in response to a perceived authority, or in reaction to an authoritarian leader (steep gradient).
- Majority Rule – going along with others’ views rather than voicing one’s own. This may be in response to an overly democratic style of leadership (shallow gradient) or because it’s easier than speaking up (steep gradient).
- Desire to please – or, perhaps more terrifying is the fear of being ridiculed, shamed or even ostracised from the team. This can occur in both steep and shallow authority gradient environments.
Modern globally accepted CRM, TRM and Human Factors training programmes provide leaders with the tools to invite feedback, ideas and challenges to their own decisions and performance - without becoming defensive and critical. These same programmes encourage junior team members to challenge others with confidence, including senior members, openly, assertively and early to help reduce risk.
Both of these aspects may run counterintuitively to various cultural norms - national, racial, religious, tribal etc. In many cultures deference is often given to age, rank, seniority, role, caste etc and, if brought into the workplace, this can create ineffective use of team, crew and group resources. It is therefore important for safety critical workers to undertake cultural diversity awareness training, and for organisations to adopt effective strategies to reduce associated risks.
Balance and Flexibility
Most teams require some degree of authority gradient, otherwise roles will become blurred and decisions will not be made in a timely fashion. The most effective leaders are those that consciously establish a command hierarchy, which is appropriate to the task at hand, and the qualification and experience levels of team members. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Shallow gradients are good for team-building and generating solutions when either the nature of the problem is unclear or where the remedy is neither routine nor obvious. Steep gradients may be appropriate in a crisis, where immediate action is required, despite the risk to team harmony.
Reducing the Risks
Reducing the risks that arise from inappropriate authority gradients is a matter of raising awareness, learning some simple skills, practicing those skills whilst under training and applying those skills during routine and emergency operations. It is also essential, after each of these stages, to openly discuss any issues that have arisen and to feed these back into the training programme.
Team leaders must be capable of creating a working climate where junior team members are confident enough to raise concerns, question decisions and also offer solutions. This requires the development of a flexible and professional leadership style based on clear communication and encouragement.
Junior team members need to learn assertiveness techniques to provide them with the confidence to question authority and play a full part in the team task.
Appropriate and comprehensive pre-task briefings are essential to clarify roles, responsibilities, capabilities, limitations and boundaries, both in normal and abnormal conditions. These may need to be reinforced during situational briefings such as pre-take-off and top of descent.
Accidents and Incidents
Events in the SKYbrary database which include Authority Gradient as a contributory factor:
- B733, vicinity Sharm El-Sheikh Egypt, 2004 (On 3 January 3 2004, a Boeing 737-300 being operated by Flash Airlines on a passenger charter flight from Sharm el-Sheikh Egypt to Cairo for a refuelling stop en route to Paris CDG crashed into the sea 2½ minutes after a night take off into VMC and was destroyed and all 148 occupants killed. The Investigation was unable to establish a Probable Cause but found evidence of AP status confusion and the possibility of distraction leading to insufficient attention being paid to flight path control.)
- DHC6, en-route, Mount Elizabeth Antarctica, 2013 (On 23 January 2013, a Canadian-operated DHC6 on day VFR positioning flight in Antarctica was found to have impacted terrain under power and whilst climbing at around the maximum rate possible. The evidence assembled by the Investigation indicated that this probably occurred following entry into IMC at an altitude below that of terrain in the vicinity having earlier set course en route direct to the intended destination. The aircraft was destroyed and there were no survivors.)
- A320, en-route Karimata Strait Indonesia, 2014 (On 28 December 2014, an A320 crew took unapproved action in response to a repeating system caution shortly after levelling at FL320. The unexpected consequences degraded the flight control system and obliged manual control. Gross mishandling followed which led to a stall, descent at a high rate and sea surface impact with a 20º pitch attitude and a 50º angle of attack four minutes later. The Investigation noted the accident origin as a repetitive minor system fault but demonstrated that the subsequent loss of control followed a combination of explicitly inappropriate pilot action and the absence of appropriate pilot action.)
- MD83, vicinity Lagos Nigeria, 2012 (On 3 June 2012, the crew of a Boeing MD-83 experienced problems in controlling the thrust from first one engine and then also the other which dramatically reduced the amount of thrust available. Eventually, when a few miles from destination Lagos, it became apparent that it would be impossible to reach the runway and the aircraft crashed in a residential district killing all 153 occupants and 6 people on the ground. The Investigation was unable to conclusively identify the cause of the engine malfunctions but attributed the accident outcome to the crew's failure to make a timely diversion to an alternative airport.)
- DHC6, en-route, Arghakhanchi Western Nepal, 2014 (On 16 February 2014 a Nepal Airlines DHC6 attempting a diversion on a VFR flight which had encountered adverse weather impacted terrain at an altitude of over 7000 feet in a mountainous area after intentionally entering cloud following a decision to divert due to weather incompatible with VFR. The aircraft was destroyed and all 18 occupants were killed. The Investigation attributed the accident to loss of situational awareness by the aircraft commander and inadequate crew co-operation in responding to the prevailing weather conditions.)
- Crew Resource Management
- Team Resource Management (TRM)
- Managing Socio-Cultural Diversity