No one really likes to be challenged but it is sometimes very dangerous to have everyone around you agree with you.  If you don’t encourage your people to challenge you the results can be fatal . . .

Take for example the following exchange taken from the flight recorder of Air Florida flight 90 just before it fell into the icy Potomac River near Washington DC, in 1982.

Co-Pilot:  Let’s check the ice on those tops [wings] again since we’ve been sitting here a while.
Captain:  No. I think we get to go in a minute.
Co-Pilot: [referring to an instrument as they prepare for take off] That doesn’t seem right does it? Uh, no that’s not right.
Captain:  Yes it is.

[sound of plane straining unsuccessfully to gain altitude]

Co-pilot:  Larry we are going down.
Captain:  I know it.

[Sound of impact that killed the captain, co-pilot and 76 others]

The danger of ‘knowing best’
While this may seem a rather extreme example, it is not uncommon for many of my clients to be dismayed by the actions of some of their people, only to be told “But you said we should do it this way”.

One client, let’s call him Pat, was discussing a problem on an IT Project with a member of his team and he was exploring an option for addressing a particular issue.  The team member simply took what was an exploratory discussion as an instruction and implemented it without considering the implications.  He acted as if he was ‘told to do it’ and in his mind that is exactly what had happened.

So what is going on here and what can you do about it?

Where are the standards?
The scenarios above are examples of how team members can often assume that ‘the boss is always right’ and how leaders frequently underestimate the power and influence they have over the people around them.

In motivation and behavioural terms there is a key pattern at play here.  It has to do with the ‘Source’ of decisions, and whether they are based on an ‘Internal’ frame of reference or an ‘External’ one.

People who have a strong Internal reference have strong feelings about their opinions and decisions; they just know because it feels right.  They are motivated to gather information from outside sources and then they decide.  They hold an internal set of standards and will judge any information they gather against these internal standards. They will take instructions from others as ‘information’ for example: “You say you need the figures by lunchtime, that’s interesting.”

People with a strong External reference will look outside of themselves for feedback and verification before making a decision.  They like to seek the opinions of others, outside direction and feedback from external sources.  They are motivated when someone else decides and do not hold standards within themselves, they gather them from the outside.  Externally referenced people will often take information as ‘an instruction’.  “He said the post has arrived, I’d better check and sort it for him.”

Remember the context
It is always important to remember that these motivational patterns are very context specific and a shift in context can cause a shift in motivation. (For more background on this Click Here

Let’s go back to our Director Pat, who has to oversee the management and delivery of IT projects.  He has very clear ideas about the standards required to manage and implement a particular project and will have no hesitation in letting the project managers know his opinions.  In the context of ‘Director’ he is very ‘Internal’. 

On the other hand, when dealing with his clients he will listen carefully to them and adapt the projects according to their feedback and needs as required.  In the context of ‘Valued Supplier’ to his clients he is ‘External’.  This makes Pat’s clients really appreciate him because he ‘listens and does what we need’ but it can cause problems for Pat’s team because the projects can chop and change according to the latest feedback from the client.  This can lead to things being implemented that end up being unworkable and staff thinking “we knew that was not going to work” but doing it anyway!

Let’s now go back to the unfortunate Pilots on Air Florida Flight 90.  The Captain was being totally ‘internal’ to his co-pilot.  The comment about the ice on the tops was just information.  His internal standards made him ignore it.  The Co-pilot was totally ‘external’ to the Captain and unquestioningly accepted his answer to the comment “That doesn’t seem right does it? Uh, no that’s not right.” Captain: “Yes it is.”

As you can imagine, when there is a fatal plane crash there is a thorough investigation and researchers have coined the phrase “Captainitis” for situations when the person in charge is highly ‘internal’ and the people around them are highly ‘external’ to them.  It’s an easy trap to fall into.  There is also plenty of scientific research about how this happens in hospitals where there is stark hierarchy between Doctors and Nurses.  In tests, some Nurses have shown willingness to unquestioningly administer dangerous doses of drugs when instructed to do so by a doctor.

Consider humility
The key to avoiding the ‘Captainitis’ dilemma is to encourage involvement and participation, especially around important decisions.  You may even need to have a little humility and actively invite dissent from your more knowledgeable staff in order to break the cycle.  Remember, when leaders fail to ask for input it can lead to poor decision-making procedures, bad choices and avoidable errors.  Just look at the crises in banking and some of the other big macho corporations.

Many of my most successful clients have established a climate of robust sharing of opinions and actively seek alternative points of view because that is the more modern 21st century approach.  This approach is also recommended by leading management thinkers like the late Stephen Covey, as demonstrated in his last book ‘The 8th Habit’. 

If you are the boss the decision is ultimately yours, but I would also like to suggest that you consider your motivational drivers and those of your people.  Consider the benefits of stepping back and observing the behaviour of those around you from a detached point of view.  Just notice what is really going on when you are making decisions.  To what extent do you explore the opinions of others?  Of course, it’s up to you to decide what is right for you in your situation.

An ever-increasing number of my clients are finding the Work Attitude and Motivation (iWAM) Profile very valuable because it provides great insights and tips on below-conscious motivators and the best way to manage your people.  If you are curious about your motivational drivers and how they not only affect your own behaviour but the way you perceive the behaviour of others, why not give the iWAM a try?  I would like to invite you to click here for more information.

As always, I’m very interested in your thoughts and application of the ideas and concepts discussed in these blogs.  Why not drop me a line at [email protected] or give me a call on 07970 134964?

Remember  . . . stay curious!

With warm regards
David Klaasen

David Klaasen is director and owner of the niche HR consultancy, Inspired Working Ltd.  (
We now have a new website packed full of learning resources for managers for more info see
If you have a communication or performance problem and would like some objective advice drop him a line at
[email protected].

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