Are We Setting Up Our Crew for Failure?


Pushing for increased crew performance is important, but of equal importance is ensuring that the entire crew environment is conducive to ensure that performance can be delivered.  There are many examples of crews that, on the surface, are moving in a positive performance improvement direction.  But, when exploring beneath the surface, it is possible to see that these same crews are in reality, preventing performance to really improve.  This is because many owners and/or managers are creating structures in which their people are doomed to fail.  The ‘set up to fail’ syndrome is becoming more and more clear as we learn how to better understand the various dynamics at play in organisations through research, but more importantly, through real hands-on experience.

The ‘set-up to fail’ syndrome is a dynamic in which a manager assumes that he or she is responsible for creating a decision-making environment in which there are winners and losers. In this type of environment there are those who succeed quite well – the winners.  But anyone who does not succeed to the level at which the manager expects becomes the loser.  And as we all know, being a ‘loser’ in an onboard environment is not something that can be changed easily.  Most manager’s believe that ‘once a crew loser, always a loser,’ and consequently, that person (the who has become the ‘loser’) becomes doomed to an environment in which success very quickly takes on the appearance of ‘not good enough,’ or mediocrity or even worse.

The dynamic looks and acts like this.  There are multiple crew under supervision.  Sometimes the supervision comes from a Captain, sometimes from an Exec Officer, sometimes from some other titled person.  They both have been working for the same supervisor in the same department for quite some time, and when pressure to improve performance increases he or she looks to the employees to see how they are doing.  Employee ‘A’ has been performing well, but not as good as employee ‘B.’ What does the supervisor do?  What would you, as their supervisor, do?  You probably would begin to supervise employee ‘A’ lot more than in the past.  And in the process of doing that, the ‘supervision’ can evolve into ‘second-guessing’ and then a reduction in the number of decisions that employee ‘A’ is even allowed to take.

In nautical environment, the dynamic can show up when two different crew are working to support the same guests.  Crew ‘Y’ has been successful in the past and received continual kudos from the guests; whilst Crew ‘Z’ has not been delivering the performance that is expected to be delivering.  You are the supervisor for both of the crew members – what do you do?

Do you reward success (Crew ‘Y’) with rewards or perks and better hours so they can continue to demonstrate success?  Or do you try to understand what are some of the underlying reasons that Crew ‘Z’ has not been delivering expected performance?  In most cases, what happens is that success is rewarded.

This is as it should be – we should always reward success, but we also need to understand why some crew are not as successful instead of propagating a structure in which success will never occur.  Don’t forget that supervisors manage crew and the stigma of ‘low performance’ sticks like glue, and then the dynamic of winners and losers continues.

Breaking this cycle can be done, but it takes a willingness on the part of senior supervisors to ensure that crew  work in an environment in which they can realise their potential, and are encouraged to do so.  In most cases, the set up to fail syndrome is not even intentional, so it also requires a willingness to talk about the fact that it can occur.

Being ‘set up to fail’ can result from many things: supervisors may be given guest expectations that are not clear; they may be given goals without the needed resources to attain them; they may be unintentionally prevented from attaining goals and targets by being pushed and pulled in non-valued added directions; they may be trying to satisfy ‘urgent’ needs instead of being able to focus on those that are important; they may be thrust into situations in which they do not have the requisite skills or competencies.  The list can go on and on.

Creating an environment in which crew can realise their potential requires that they are provided with opportunities to improve their decision-making skills, ensuring that they have the resources that they will require to deliver the performance that is expected of them, and they have the ability to work collaboratively.

Setting crew members up for failure is a symptom of a crew management structure that does not value people and their ability to contribute. It is a symptom of a team in which ‘hitting the numbers’ is deemed more important than ensuring that gains that are made can be sustained.  It does a disservice to its other crew, guests, and the owners over time.   It is a symptom of a crew management structure that I would not want to work for.  Would you?

Dr. James Rieley

(+34) 620 224 341


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