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Five things Compliance can learn from Airline Safety Briefings

I’m always on the lookout for Behavioural Science (BeSci) techniques that we can deploy in the service of mitigating Human Risk.

In this blog, I explore how airline safety briefings can help improve Compliance-type mandatory training.

Recently, this video of a passenger safety briefing on Canadian airline Westjet, went viral. If you’ve not seen it, I recommend you spend a few minutes watching a masterclass in scene-stealing acting.

Source: LinkedIn

It’s an extreme example of a growing trend to make safety briefings more exciting and engaging. Which got me thinking:

If airlines, who operate in one of the most tightly regulated industries can do this, then why are so many pieces of corporate Compliance training so utterly dull and uninspiring?

This prompted some research, which means I can now share 5 lessons I’ve learned from looking into airline safety briefings.

Lesson 1: Just because something is important, doesn’t mean people will listen.

The reason airline safety briefings are becoming more engaging is because the airlines, and their regulators, have recognised that most of us don’t pay attention to dull things. Even when we know that we probably should.

As flying has become inherently safer, Human Risk has become more of a critical factor. Passengers are now often the weakest link when it comes to incidents.

As a recent New York Times article explains, people still do the stupidest things. Please, dear reader, don’t be like these British Airways passengers who tried to take their luggage with them after their plane caught fire on the runway at Las Vegas:

Obviously, they would have been told to leave all their personal possessions on board in case of an emergency. But clearly, they either didn’t listen or chose to ignore the instructions. We clearly aren’t predisposed to listen to something that could save our lives.

Taking things to an illogical extremity were passengers on a recent Air New Zealand flight which an eye-witness described as follows:

The video started playing and the flight attendant held up the card, but the woman started looking down at her book.
She soon picked up her phone, and both she and her male travel companion were looking at their phones, she said.
A flight attendant said very patiently ‘Can you please watch what’s happening because this is the exit row’‘.
The flight attendant was super kind and kept asking her, but the woman put her fingers in her ears.

So what’s going on? Here’s the answer, courtesy of neuroscientist Dr Tali Sharot, from her excellent book The Influential Mind: What The Brain Reveals About Our Power To Change Others.

Our intuition is that if we have something important to convey, others will want to know it. This instinct is wrong. In particular, if the information is tied to a bleak message, many will actively avoid it—as was the case with pre-flight safety briefings.

The same dynamic applies to people who are heavily in debt and don’t open bills or people with health issues that avoid going for medicals. We’re naturally disposed towards being positive, so shy away from thinking about unpleasant things. To find out why this is the case and how we can overcome the limitations this poses, I recommend Dr Sharot’s TED Talk on The Optimism Bias.

In a work environment, there is an even greater risk of people disengaging. Just because something is important from a corporate perspective, doesn’t mean that staff will feel motivated to listen. Arguably precisely the opposite is true. We can’t rely on the fact that someone is paid to come to work, to get their engagement when it comes to listening to rules. So what can we do about that? The next few lessons contain the answer:

Lesson 2: Timing matters

One of the reasons people don’t listen to safety briefings is that they’ve heard it all before and therefore think they don’t need to be told what to do. Many frequent flyers, myself included, take confidence from the fact we know what we’re doing. Safety briefings are for “other people“; you know, the ones that hold us all up at security screening by not removing belts, thinking its ok to leave coins in their pockets and generally paying no attention to the instructions they’re given.

Of course, security screening is relatively predictable and most of us have experienced it many times. We’ve generally only heard about what to do in an emergency, rather than actually experienced it. As Dr Sharot explains, there’s a reason they ask frequent flyers to pay attention during safety briefings:

You may argue that we have all been through the drill before: seat belt, oxygen mask, life jacket, exit door—we get it. But the fact of the matter is that different airplanes have different safety features.
In fact, even if you have flown on the exact same aircraft before, you should listen closely. This is because rehearsing the safety procedure just before takeoff reactivates the required sequence in your brain, which makes it more likely that you will execute the actions automatically if needed.

Underpinning this is a BeSci concept called Salience. We are most susceptible to being influenced when something is relevant to us. Yet lots of Compliance training relies on people being taught concepts that whilst relevant are abstract at the point at which they are being communicated.

Ideally then, we should look to train people just before they’re about to do the thing they’re being trained on. Finding the right moment, can make the likelihood of something being retained and acted upon, that much greater. But if that’s not possible, then levering the Reinforcement Effect by reminding them of the key things they need to know, just before they need to know them, can also work well.

All too often training programmes reflect corporate priorities, not individual priorities. Take Induction Training. From an employer’s perspective, they want to “sheep-dip” new joiners and ensure they’ve covered themselves from a legal perspective right from the start. Yet those new employees are more concerned about when they will get their ID back, where the bathroom facilities are, how they can buy food and above all, whether they’ve made the right decision in joining the Firm.

It is possible to deliver on both objectives, but that requires some thought. All too often, the timing that is chosen for training by organisations, is not the timing that is optimal for the recipients of it.

Of course, the only reason airlines are able to use innovative techniques is because the regulations allow them to do so. I’ve read them, so you don’t have to!

Lesson 3: Detail the “What” and Guide the “How”

As each country imposes its own regulations, I’ve decided to pick the UK as an example. The relevant regulator in the UK is The Civil Aviation Authority who, for now at least, takes European Union Regulation and enforces it locally. The EU Regulation, in turn, is governed by the principles of the 1944 Chicago Convention on Civil Aviation, which is a globally agreed framework.

Helpfully for our purposes, the demarcation between EU and UK Regulations is relatively simple: the EU regs deal with What the briefing needs to cover, whilst the UK ones give guidance on the How.

I’ve included both below. Not because I expect you to read them (though feel free), but rather so that you can see the relative lengths of each. I’ll be picking specific details out of this, so no need to read unless you really want to. For now, just note that there is far more detail in the first section (the EU What) than in the second (the UK How); particularly once you realise that large chunks of the How are specific requirements relating to the use of screens for video briefings:

And here is the much shorter How, most of which is ensuring that if a video is used, that the screens are visible to passengers.

The content of the What is fairly unsurprising; passengers need to be told about key safety features including seat belts, lifejackets and emergency exits. It’s the How that is much more interesting.

Operators, it says must adopt a “positive approach to the pre-flight briefing” and the crew must deliver it “in a professional and interested manner”. Furthermore, the presentation should “encourage passengers to pay attention” and the crew shouldn’t be performing other duties (like serving drinks) whilst the presentation is on. That’s it.

It’s about as “adult” a form of regulation as you’ll find. No specifics on how to present, just some guiding parameters. As I like to say:

Compliance is an outcome not a process

The more you define how people should do something, the less opportunity you give for people to own the implementation themselves. If we want people to be engaged, then it is worth thinking about whether prescribing both the What and the How is really necessary. Obviously, if you’re training someone on how to run a nuclear facility, or indeed fly a plane, then being prescriptive on both makes sense. But it is worth asking whether that need always applies.

Lesson 4: Never tell people something is a regulatory requirement

What we’ve been exploring throughout this blog is a BeSci concept of Re-Framing; changing the way in information is presented to a target audience to influence their perception of it. In other words, think about how the presentation and content will land with passengers and make it as engaging as possible. Boring people into submissive compliance is ineffective.

With that in mind, there’s one further piece of the regulation I want to bring to your attention:

“Briefings should not be introduced with the statement that operators are required to provide such information”

This is phenomenally smart regulation which demonstrates that the regulator has a really good understanding of psychology. Presenting the briefing as a mandatory exercise would send a clear signal to passengers and aircrew alike, that the only reason the briefing exists is because it is a requirement.

If you’ve ever been told that training is there to meet a regulatory requirement, you’ll know exactly what I mean. It’s a real turn off. We know instinctively that if that’s the opening line, then it’s a fair assumption that the person planning the training will have expended more energy on that aspect, than on engaging the audience and providing them with useful content.

Lesson 5: Engaging doesn’t mean expensive

Of course, it is possible to spend a lot of money making epic training videos. Just ask Air New Zealand whose safety videos are so glorious that they become viral YouTube hits that help sell the country as a tourist destination. Like this:

But as we saw with the Westjet example, it is equally possible to engage people in a low-cost way. Budget airlines, who often don’t have video screens, achieve passenger engagement by allowing their crews latitude in how they present.

We know from the fact that people share these briefings on social media, that there’s something about them that grabs our attention. Admittedly, part of this is down to something called the Von Restorff Effect; the idea that we pay attention to things that stand out. You could argue that if every briefing was like the Westjet one, then there wouldn’t be a social media story in it.

Which is where allowing those who deliver the training to do it their way can help. Not every employee will be equipped with the comedic talents of Westjet’s Michael McAdam (for more from him click here). But comedy isn’t the only way to grab our attention. Letting people have freedom, empowers creativity. I suspect that no-one would have thought of doing a safety briefing as a rap. Yet this Southwest crewmember did precisely that:

Employing people means running Human Risk. But they can also be a really powerful weapon in helping to mitigate it. And if you’re already paying them, why not lever that?

So there you have it. Five lessons we can learn. If you want help applying these in your organisation then get in touch.

The author is the founder of Human Risk, a Behavioural Science Consulting and Training Firm specialising in the fields of Risk, Compliance, Conduct and Culture.


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