Sunday, January 6, 2013

Emotional Dissonance in Air Traffic Control

  "The fox who longed for grapes, beholds with pain
The tempting clusters were too high to gain;
Greived in his heart he forced a careless smile,
And cried,"They're sharp and hardly worth my while."  
- Aphra Behn c.1687

Remember that fable? Well that is a classic example of cognitive dissonance. We know the essence of the fable. He wanted the grapes but he could not reach them so he left. Then he justified leaving the grapes behind by the reasoning that the grapes were not good. This belief conflicted with his initial belief and that is what my psychological counterparts call cognitive dissonance. 
Today, we are going to look at an application of this dissonance in ATC. It is called Emotional Dissonance or EMDI. 
EMDI is the conflict that an ATCO feels between her emotions while at work.  For an ATCO must remain calm at all times. EMDI is also fuelled by stressors in ATC. What are some stressors in Air Traffic Control? How can an ATCO experience EMDI? What are the implications for safety in ATC performance?
As you consider the following events, try to find the common thread:

London 2012 Summer Olympics
ATC facilities, Japan 2011 after earthquake

ICC Cricket, 2010, Gros Islet, St.Lucia

Pathway of crashed AFR 447, 2009

What do those events all have in common? Commendation for all of you who guessed that the workload of controllers would have been significantly affected. These events are examples of external stress factors that increase the workload of ATCOs either directly through increased traffic intensity or indirectly through increased pressure upon the psycocognitive faculties and skills that form an indelible part of ATC. Look at the photos again and try to think of the effect of each of those external stressors upon the ATCOs in the immediate region.
In the context of ATC, external stress factors are those stressors that occur outside the ATC unit or our physical work surroundings.  These external stressors are not limited to unusual events. They also include psychosocial issues pertaining to our daily routine such as family responsibilities, friendly obligations and social events. 
The existence of external stressors automatically mean that there are internal factors within the ATC unit. These factors are disparities that arise from the physical surroundings, workplace culture and even the personal aspirations of the ATCO. They all act as aggravators of job stress. Note that job stressors impact negatively upon workplace wellbeing.

Out of these stressors, management policies and coworker relations make the heaviest impact. A comparative study on 111 executive leaders of firms over a 12-year period from 1992  showed that management styles affected organizational performance (Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2007). Another study on 288 firms found that passive abusive supervision trickles downward in varying  degrees through the hierarchies from the top of executive management to the floor-employees (Mawritz et al, 2012)
ATC units are not immune to abusive, inefficient management. Poorly organized and mismanaged units aggravate job stress. In turn job stress, like a domino effect, detracts from workplace wellbeing and ATC performance and safety is reduced.  

Stress Factors in ATC
                                      External factors                                  Internal factors
             (Social events, Natural disaters)                Environment                 Culture
                                                                   (Physical work spaces)      (Work policies, Relations, Self)

EMDI is felt more acutely in the presence of stressors.  Unusual events increase the effect of the dissonance. The four pictures at the top are examples of unusual ATC events. We have 2 stressors that would have increased the workload of the ATCO. The olympics and the cricket were busy traffic periods. However, the crash and the natural disaster placed emotional burdens upon the ATCOs not just in the localised area but also in the region.

An artistic impression of stress

In the following post we will take a closer look at the ATCO as a producer and how this producer   experiences EMDI in ATC. We will also consider the supplementary evidence of a preliminary global study on controllers. 
The source material for this post came from an article that I wrote for <<The Controller - the journal of Air Traffic Control, Vol. 51, p12-14, October 2012 (IFATCA)>>. 

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1 comment :

  1. Revised edition 08/01/2013.
    Correction of error in table of Stress Factors in ATC.