Fast Jet Performance

Fast Jet Pilot gets an Office Job! – 6 Tips for Better Communication in the Workplace

So, I’ve just swapped the cockpit of my military fast jet for a desk in an office and, WHOA…

…Am I learning about communication!

Or the lack of it.

I’m probably just not familiar with all of the nuances yet, I mean – I’ve only been there a month or so.

But I’ve become fascinated with the way people exchange information and, as I still fly a few hours each month, I’ve been comparing how pilots communicate with how it’s done in the office.

Communication in the Cockpit.

This week I had to check one of my flying instructors on his annual flying ability test. This instructor is one of my top guys and an ex-single seat ground attack pilot.

His flying was excellent but there was just something he did that caught my eye.


You see, in a tandem cockpit, the only way you can communicate with the other pilot is through the words you use and the tonality you apply to them. You cannot see the other pilot so, unlike for airline pilots, body language is not part of the communication.

You may of heard of a study about body-language’s role in communication.

It states that non-verbal cues such as posture or the position of the hands are responsible for 55% of a person’s communication, tonality 38% and words a mere 7%.

But it’s not true, well – it’s not exactly true.

The study was done by Albert Mehrabian, now Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA. His experiments dealt with the communication of feelings and attitudes.

So unless a person is talking about their feelings or attitudes, these percentages do not apply.

Even though I was testing the instructor’s flying ability and not his feelings, it has to be recognised that Mehrabian’s study highlights some obvious truths.

Your body language is a significant contributor in how your message will be received.

Towards the end of the sortie the instructor took us back to fly some circuits and I noticed that every time he selected the undercarriage or flaps he would state what he was expecting the results of his selection to be as opposed to the actual results of his action.

In aviation we use a mantra of ‘Limitation-Operation-Indication’ (LOI)* whenever we move a switch or select a service.

In this case the instructor would say ‘Speed below 200 knots, airbrake in, gear down’ as he selected the gear handle to the ‘down’ position.

The gear takes about 6 seconds to go from the ‘up and locked’ to the ‘down and locked’ position and when it has finished travelling, the pilot visually checks the indication and confirms verbally ‘Three greens indicating’ or ‘Gear down’.

He would do the same with the flaps – ‘Flaps down’, he would say as he selected the flap lever to the down position. Then he would complete some other checks such as the brake pressures and nose-wheel steering engagement before returning to check the flap position (the indication part of LOI) stating the flap position as ‘Flaps down’.

During the debrief, I told him of my observation.

​Now, I’m an ex-Tornado GR4 twin seat fast jet pilot and my Crew Resource Management (CRM) is slightly different to a single-seat pilot’s. When you operate as a crew, a lot of the time one of you will not be fully aware of what the other is doing.

The words you use must be carefully formulated to deliver precisely the message you want.

When you are fighting the jet at low-level, maybe at night using complicated systems or over unfamiliar terrain, the workload can be exceptionally high. In these environments a quiet cockpit is essential, meaning that communication both internally and externally needs to be concise.

For this reason my words had to be correct.

Now, when I select the gear I say ‘Speed below 200 knots, airbrake travels in – indicating ‘IN’, gear travels‘. I then conduct some other checks before returning to the gear, checking ‘three greens’ and stating ‘Gear down.’

I told the flying instructor that when he selected the gear down, he has only made a selection – the gear is not down, it is in a transitioning state. If he was to say on selection ‘Gear down’ and then omit to check its position again, as far as a busy guy in the rear seat is concerned, the state of the aircraft’s gear is in the ‘down’ position as that is all he has heard.

Should the gear have failed to lock down and is not subsequently checked then the results of this oversight could be pretty expensive.

The words you use in aviation have to be concise and direct, the cockpit is no place for ambiguity.

I once heard a story of an instructor who was teaching a foreign student to fly a loop. This involved pulling back on the stick really hard so that the nose of the aircraft can pass through the vertical without running out of energy at the top.

But the student wouldn’t pull back on the stick hard enough.

Time and time again the aircraft would stall and the instructor would have to take control.

Eventually the frustrated instructor lost all sense of professionalism and shouted at his student, ‘Look I just want you to try and overstress the aircraft, OK?!’

At which point the student selected the gear down at over 300 knots – well above its limiting speed!

As the above examples show, it’s important to remember that people don’t always say what they mean.

Communication in the Home.

Recently we had a couple of friends over for dinner, a casual affair and nothing formal. A friend of mine, Dave (not his real name), is going through a divorce and isn’t having a great time so we got him over too.

Dave arrived at the house and when I took his coat he said, ‘I’m sorry I’m late. Everything after a divorce takes twice as long, my daughter couldn’t find her shoes and the traffic was awful.’

One of the other guests responded, ‘Yeah, the traffic was terrible, I don’t know why they insist on doing road works in the holidays.’

It was obvious to me that Dave didn’t have to tell us about the divorce the minute he walked in – he could have just blamed the traffic or the shoes.

But Dave wanted to talk about the divorce, he put it right out there and why shouldn’t he?

He was going through a major life changing event – he NEEDED to talk about it.

In the cockpit, as at home, people don’t always tell you what they mean and if they do, we don’t always pick-up on what they are actually trying to say.

It’s the same in the office, too.

‘What people say they want to talk about and what they actually want to talk about are often not the same thing.’

Communication in the Office.

Leadership communication expert, Dr. Laura Sicola, says that executive presence (how you present yourself in the workplace) is made up of three parts – Appearance, Communication skills and Gravitas.

She highlights the importance of tonality and non-verbal cues and their use in complementing the actual words that are being said.

She talks of a ‘Prismatic Voice’ that describes how you might change your tonality when talking to different people yet retain your authenticity. For example, when she talks to a mature audience she uses a mature sounding tonality but when she talks to her 3 year old nephew her tonality will change.

Through it all, though she remains herself – she is not acting, she is just selecting which parts of her personality she lets through to ensure an audience’s openness to her message.

It’s what differentiates the strong leaders from the rest of us.

Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump, Winston Churchill and Barrack Obama are all great orators who never lost their true authenticity when speaking even when they altered their tone.

When Margaret Thatcher was Edward Heath’s Education Secretary she had to take voice coaching lessons as she was frequently ridiculed by the opposition for her tonality.

‘The lady doth screech too much.’ – Opposition back-bencher.

​She had to make her tone more authoritative in order for her messages to come across with maturity but she never pretended to be anything other than the Iron Lady she was to become.

On a military flying Squadron the pilots are all generally cut from the same cloth, educational backgrounds are similar as are other aspects such as sex and ethnicity. This is why arguments are rare and we tend to listen to each other when someone has a point; it’s like talking to yourself sometimes!

As I’m finding out – this is not the case in the office.

The office I work in is made up of many people from differing backgrounds and with varying skill-sets, education levels, expectations and aspirations. My office is split into many sections including MOD civil servants, civilians and various military personnel.

Apparently, profanity is bad and people can and will complain about you!

Interestingly, the first time that you find out you’ve upset someone is when your boss tells you and not the person you’ve upset!

‘If you want the rainbow, you’ve gotta put up with the rain – do you know which philosopher said that? Dolly Parton. And people say she’s just a big pair of tits.’
– David Brent

​Yes, I’ve been told to be less ‘fast jet’, which I take to mean less blunt with people.

So, here are 6 observations from the office to which I’ve applied jet pilot logic!

1.         Clarify vague questions or demands.

This seems to be quite common. People will task you with a ‘notion’ or an ‘I think it might be good if we looked at this at some point’.

As we’ve seen in aviation, clarity is essential and frequently I have to say, ‘What, exactly, do you want me to do for you?’ or ‘How exactly can I help you with what you need?’

Clarify demands.

‘I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, so could you give me an example?’ is another good way of enhancing understanding and minimising confusion.

2.         Every office worker has a communication preference – Find it and use it.

People in offices can be very different – pilots, not so much.

As much as I hate this, I have found it saves a lot of hassle. I always ask ‘When I get back to you , do want a call, email or chat?’

Personally, though, if I have to get information fast I will go over to the person’s workplace and just talk to them, call me old fashioned.

Unlike on a squadron, confrontation and being overly directive doesn’t work in the office environment.

But, if you do have a grievance with someone, don’t write them an email that they might misinterpret or use against you – just go and speak to them, most people are really genuine and happy to talk.

3.         Take care with your body-language.

In a meeting, if you are leaning back when everyone else is leaning forward then you have detached yourself from the meeting. When it’s your turn to talk, lean in – it shows that you are present and engaged.

Mirroring body-language or tonality can put people at ease.

Tony Robbins tells a story of being late to meet a high-flying CEO who, upon seeing Tony, got angry and boisterous. The only way Tony could speak to him was to join him at that elevated level and then slowly bring him down to one that supported agreeable conversation.

If your body language is all hunched up with your arms folded and legs crossed you are saying that you are closed; nobody will have confidence in you when you say that you can take on that piece of work.

4.         Be honest.

There is nothing worse than someone saying they’ll do something and then not getting it done. I’d rather hear an ‘unable’ than a ‘should be able’ – set timelines and expectations.
In flying, integrity is everything and I trust my pilots 100%.

Pilots tend to be blunt as it saves time – although this can come across as uncomfortably direct or confrontational to the uninitiated.

Use the IF..THEN.. technique.

Say, ‘IF you are going to be out of the office for a week, THEN could you give me a status report a couple of days before you go?’ or ‘Please don’t tell me about issues if they’re problems you can fix yourself.’

5.         Avoid verbal orders but enhance direct communication.

If it’s not written down then it will get lost in the multitude of other distractions.

Squadron orders are written down for this reason, too.

Like pilots, new employees need boundaries and direction, they need reporting schedules with regular updates and guidance.

Face to face chats are so important in understanding whether an employee is able to follow your direction as a manager or if, as an employee, you are to understand what is expected of you.

6.         Meetings are toxic.

Do not go to any meetings that do not have an agenda and a set of desired outcomes – that’s a ‘chat’, not a meeting. Actually, just don’t go to any meetings at all – they are normally just a way for your manager to show his manager that he is doing some work.

I went to a two hour meeting that overran by another two hours!

Top tips for meetings:

  • Don’t have any – they waste everybody’s time.
  • If you have to have a meeting – set a timer, when it rings the meeting is over. (Allocate time to each topic and stick to it.)
  • ALWAYS have an agenda.
  • Meet at the site of the problem – point to real things.
  • End with a solution, make someone responsible for implementing it and hold them accountable. But ALWAYS end with a solution even if it might not be the 100% correct one.

These are just my observations and I’ve obviously had my head in the clouds for far too long so if anyone has some more tips on how I might survive the office I’d love it if you’d kindly let me know below!

Thanks for reading.

*Limitation – Firstly we check that we are in a flight regime where the particular service can be selected without overstressing it; normally this is a speed range. Operation – The service is selected. Indication – We check that the service has functioned in the manner that we expected it to.

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