HF Authority Gradient by Phil Higton

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Human Factors and Teamskills in communities with limited resources.
The really great thing about managing the vulnerability of the human condition –
human factors – is that it is largely about the application of common sense and
turning this common sense into common practice.
An effective team can provide a significant improvement in safety. The largest
enabler of effective performance is referred to in the NASA Team Skills matrix under
the heading “Group Climate / Interpersonal Relations”. This reflects the quality of
relationships among the team and is something to which every team member
contributes.
Attitude, mood, good humour, trust and respect make positive
contributions and whingeing, blame, sulks and lack of common courtesy have a
negative impact. We all share a professional responsibility to make a positive impact
irrespective of our role in the team.
Another really powerful influence on group climate is referred to as the Authority
Gradient, which is a reflection of the difference in power (control or influence)
between individuals within the team. A large difference in power is referred to as a
‘steep’ Authority Gradient and a small difference as a ‘shallow’ one. With a steep
gradient junior team members are used as ‘units of labour’, they provide physical
labour but are not expected to contribute their insight or knowledge. This would not
matter if the boss or leader were infallible, all seeing and all knowing. Unfortunately
bosses are human and humans are fallible and as the workload rises so does the
likelihood of task fixation, so all seeing and all knowing is not likely either. As a
boss, wouldn’t you want to know if the task was going wrong or you were about to
make a mistake? Would it not be so much better to find these things out early rather
than to have to deal with the consequence of an avoidable safety failure?
In some cultural settings junior team members fail to speak up because they are
frightened of the boss. In others, junior team members are concerned that the boss
will lose face if a junior sees something that they have not. In both these cases the
boss does not have access to all the available knowledge so both understanding and
decisions are compromised. This is a steep Authority Gradient in action. Bosses can
protect themselves by reducing the power difference. Every time the boss asks a
junior’s opinion, shares knowledge, admits fallibility and delegates he or she reduces
the Authority Gradient, but this cannot be one-way traffic. As a junior you can
contribute by being engaged, developing your skills and confidence, speaking
succinctly and acting professionally.
There is no cost associated with aiming for a shallow Authority Gradient at work
except the surrender of a little pride for the boss and a willingness to be something
other than a unit of labour from the juniors. The improvement in working atmosphere
and team performance can bring huge improvements in safety.
A final tip. As a junior, it may be that your national cultural values mean that you are
inhibited from speaking up to people in authority. As a professional in a professional
environment, could it be that having a workplace cultural norm of shallow gradients is
acceptable at work and that other national cultural rules apply in your own space and
time?
ISQuA Resources provided by Terema Ltd in support of Webinar by
Captain Phil Higton – Teaching Human Factors in Healthcare – 29 May 2012
www.terema.co.uk email [email protected] Tel 44(0)1344 566 352
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