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Center of Gravity: Passive vs. Aggressive

Welcome to my latest segment concept - Center of Gravity (possibly a working title). This was inspired by my favorite leadership book, The Dichotomy of Leadership, by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, which discusses the importance of balancing many of life's dichotomous factors. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to lead a team of any kind, as the best leadership styles are hybrid approaches.

This principle does not apply to just aspiring leaders. I have always said I try to live in the grey area - life is not solely black and white, after all. We can learn and discuss many things to find a proper balance that works for us. Remember, many of these factors are ever-changing, requiring us to react and adjust to maintain balance constantly.

To understand this, think about weight and balance for pilots. The aircraft’s center of gravity is pivotal to the safety of each flight. However, every adjustment in weight distribution requires a recalculation by dispatchers, which is verified by the flight crew before departure. System-wise, fuel flow will burn from the center tank(s) before moving to the wing tanks. Every bag and which bin they are located in matters for the final calculations. Every single variable creates a constant and ever-changing formula that must produce a number within a specific range. Otherwise, the aircraft will not take off.

The Conflict

A long conversation with my doctor made me think about this first dichotomy. In dealing with conflict, many people skew either passive or aggressive. A sedentary individual is overly compromising and approximates a “pushover,” whereas an aggressive person quickly escalates when confronting conflict - many times in a hostile manner. Sadly, neither of these are ideal approaches to achieving a desirable solution.

The topic of conflict is a good talking point to highlight the key differences between these two opposing factors. Last I checked, we do not live in a perfect world where everyone agrees unanimously. Thus, think about the last time you encountered conflict personally or professionally. How did things unfold? Was a resolution mutually agreed upon? This was further a conversation in one of my leadership classes. There will never be a conflict where both parties leave fully satisfied.

For pilots, conflict resolution is a critical skill that must be learned to be effective. Regrettably, many innocent people have lost their lives in plane crashes due to poor conflict resolution between flight crew members.

In 2011, a Boeing 737-200 operating as First Air 6560 was approaching the remote Canadian airport of Resolute Bay. The weather at the time featured low visibility, making for an uncomfortable approach for any pilot, given the airport’s limited infrastructure. While shooting an ILS approach, the captain's unfortunate bump of the control column disengaged the autopilot, causing the aircraft to begin drifting off the localizer path.

The first officer noticed the deviation almost immediately. However, the captain was not as sure, and at his command, the approach continued. Between that moment and the time of impact, the first officer tried to warn the captain eighteen times about the aircraft being off-course. The pilot maintained his stubbornness, resulting in twelve people losing their life.

While the first officer ultimately tried doing the right thing, the investigation determined his communication style to voice his concerns bordered on acquiescence. There was a lack of conviction, almost as if he acceded to his fate at the risk of upsetting his captain. Meanwhile, the captain edged on aggressively, not accepting the reality of the situation being voiced by his first officer.

The Resolution

Ideally, we want to live in the middle, and I know what you are thinking - no, being passive-aggressive is not the solution. In fact, it is most certainly the opposite of where we want to be. Passive-aggressive behavior, characterized by “indirect resistance to the demands of others and avoidance of direct confrontation,” never solves anything. You can think of it as combining these two opposing behaviors, not the antithesis.

The aggressive person will get you to rise to their level, whereas the passive person won’t attempt to meet you anywhere. The commonly understood middle ground for this dilemma is being assertive - removing emotions from the equation to find an effective solution. In other words, proactive behavior is communicating directly and honestly without intentionally hurting another person’s feelings.

Personality conflict between pilots has been a known issue in flight decks worldwide for as long as we can remember. In some places, poor conflict resolution originates with cultural differences, particularly when individuals are shamed for challenging their elders. While this complex has come a long way, there are still instances where conflict resolution between pilots has been problematic.

Luckily, we can learn and adopt many methods to this dynamic, particularly with Crew Resource Management (CRM). Also known as “Cockpit Resource Management,” its origins date back to 1969 when a former Royal Air Force and BOAC pilot David Beaty wrote a book titled “The Human Factor in Aircraft Accidents.”

This framework would lie in place for years. However, it was not until human factors played a critical role in the Tenerife Disaster of 1977 that formal training was pushed into classrooms. By the 1990s, most airlines had implemented a CRM module into their flight training.

Maintaining Balance

Balance, balance, balance. Most of us will lean one way or another on a normal distribution. It is our responsibility to accurately identify our position and make adjustments, day by day, to create assertive habits we can build upon. The aggregate effort will benefit both your personal and professional life. A productive mantra is trying to be a little better than the previous day.

Extreme cases may require external help. Overly-aggressive individuals may need anger management, while passive people will require a push from others to motivate any change. It may be alarming at first and difficult to process, but there is nothing wrong with getting a little external nudge. I encourage others to remain supportive since extreme cases usually wreak havoc in other facets of their lives, which can be a lot to grasp.

I will discuss more about how we can maintain balance in future posts. For example, I am finally getting around to reading the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, which is full of helpful material. Particularly in times of conflict, there are habits we can build to keep us from approaching either extreme, whether it be passive or aggressive. But, we cannot do anything until we understand - thus, welcome to the Center of Gravity.

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