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Belbin Team Roles on the Flight Deck


Professor R.B.Cattell, a renowned personality psychologist, when writing about his research on the personality characteristics of airline pilots, observed:- “The pilot profile excellently fits what is psychologically anticipated. They are high on ego strength (reality testing), superego strength (rule consciousness), low in free-floating anxiety and in proneness to guilt and mistrust, and they are objective and un-sentimental rather than sentimental”.

He concluded by observing that this is an excellent combination of high reality assessment and emotional stability when under stress. This was written in 1970! Since that date both the carrying capacity of modern airliners as well as their technical complexity have enormously increased. No passenger would deny that pilots of a modern airliner have one of the most personally responsible jobs in the world. A job that requires intensive training, natural aptitude for flying, good physical fitness, and a well-adjusted personality.

These are the obvious requirements for the individual pilot. However, the latest passenger aircraft operate with at least two and sometimes three pilots, so efficient TEAMWORK is also an essential component of optimum cockpit performance.

The aircraft captain may have flown with his co-pilots before; he may never have flown with them, or not for some time. Their technical competence can be taken for granted, as can their performance in a flight simulator, but in a crisis situation the deepest parts of personality come into play and these can make the difference between disaster and survival for the passengers and crew.

The working relationship between any two people or a team of people can be accurately predicted, as can their team performance. This analysis can be performed by using the Belbin Team Role model, which provides a relatively quick means of differentiating between pilots and their fundamental behaviour responses, which have high face validity and immediate utility in a cockpit situation.

There are nine Team Roles in the model, which have been extensively studied and used worldwide since 1978. These Team Roles describe an individually characteristic way of behaving, contributing and interrelating in a team situation. We can therefore suggest that nine different pilots, each with a unique Team Role profile will react to a cockpit crisis or routine situation in nine different, but predictable ways!

There are two most important elements in Belbin’s Team Role analysis.First is the recognition that human strengths usually bring countervailing weaknesses. Secondly, some combinations of these Team Roles have a greater probability of team success than others. Some pairings achieve complementarity where others are more likely to result in counter-productive behaviours, which might have negative effect on flight deck performance.

Armed with this Team Role profile data, an airline can predict cockpit behaviour in terms of the balance of the team that will be flying a particular sector. The captain will ask his co-pilots for their Team Role profile which will tell him how well balanced the team will be and what it’s “allowable weaknesses” will be. Co-pilots by knowing their captain’s profile will know what sort of skipper they have and how he will be likely to react both to them, and to a cockpit crisis.

Dr David Marriott.

David is Director of the Applied Psychology Unit Pty Ltd and a senior facilitator and Mentor within the Sabre Corporate Development team.

Reference: Handbook of the 16PF, Cattell, Eber and Tatsuoka. 1970IPAT Inc Champaign, Illinois. Pages 189-190.

© Applied Psychology Unit

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