Silence That May Kill-When Aircrew Members Don’t Speak Up and Why

Silence That May Kill - When Aircrew Members Don’t Speak Up and Why

Bienefeld and Grote (2012) conducted a study to determine the reasons why aircraft crew members sometimes choose to stay silent and not speak up to each other about safety critical information during flight. Another objective of their study was to understand whether there are specific group differences as to why crew members aren’t speaking up, for example whether the barriers to speaking up are different between Captains and First Officers. The crew groups analysed were Captain’s, Flight Attendant’s, Purser’s (Chief Flight Attendant) and Flight Attendant’s. In their study, Bienefeld and Grote define speaking up as “as an upward voice directed from lower to higher status individuals within and across teams, that challenges the status quo, to avert or mitigate errors” (Bienefeld & Grote, 2012, p.1). As shown in table one, speaking up behavior changed significantly between crew member groups. Members were asked to rate from 0 (never speaking up) to 100 (always speaking up) in how often they spoke up regarding safety critical information.

Table One: Speaking Up Behavior Between Crew Groups
Mean SD Interpretation
Captain 86.93 19.17 Highest Speaking up
First Officer 30.95 22.71 3rd Highest Speaking Up
Purser 28.05 20.35 Lowest Speaking Up
Flight Attendant 57.66 15.17 2nd Highest Speaking Up

The results show that on average all crew members decide not to always speak up regarding issues that are safety related during flight. Interestingly, participant's spoke up only 52% of the time regarding safety critical information overall. The authors used a univariate general linear model to test if past speaking up behavior differed between groups, with each crew group being the independent variable and past speaking up behavior as the dependent variable. Participant's age, gender and and tenure were also included as co-variates. Results were that crew groups had a significant effect in past speaking up behavior (p < .001), however none of the co-variates showed any effects on past speaking up behavior.

When crew members were asked the reasons why they chose to be silent in a certain safety related situation that they remembered, specific group differences emerged as shown in table two.

Table Two: Reasons for Silence versus Frequency (percentage) per Group
Reasons For Silence Captain First Officer Purser Flight Attendant
1.Status Differences 0% 11% 20% 40% (4th)
2.Fear of Damaging Relationships 53% (1st) 43% (1st) 15% 42% (3rd)
3.Feelings of Futility 0% 33% (2nd) 23% (5th) 51% (2nd)
4.Lack of Experience in current position, job or aircraft type 14% (5th) 13% 3% 0%
5.Negative Impact on Others 24% (2nd) 24% (4th) 16% 36% (5th)
6.Poor Relationship with Supervisor 0% 20% 26% (4th) 35%
7.Fear of Punishment 0% 23% (5th) 67% (2nd) 81% (1st)
8.Fear of Negative Label 3% 29% (3rd) 21% 6%
9.Perceived conflict, efficiency vs safety 21% (3rd) 14% 70% (1st) 29%
10.Perceived Time Pressure 20% (4th) 11% 41% (3rd) 13%
Notes Percentages of Reasons add up to over 100% as most participants had more than one reason for being silent in the situation they remembered. Figures beside percentages indicate the top 5 reasons for each groups silence.

Captains' and First Officers' main reason for silence was the fear of damaging the relationship between one another in the cockpit, with 53% and 43% feeling this way respectively. Further to this, Captain's didn't want to speak up 24% of the time due to the embarrassment they thought the First Officer would feel. The second highest reason for both First Officer's and Flight Attendant's staying silent was the feeling of futility if they were to speak up, highlighting the decision making positions Captain's and Purser's share. Flight Attendants' and Pursers' fear of punishment was a major reason for their silence, with 81% and 67% feeling this way respectively. This was contrasted to First Officer's who only gave this as a reason for silence 23% of the time. Overall the reasons for silence varied greatly, with all groups top 3 reasons for not speaking up being different. (Jose I have emailed you a graph of the table two results).

The authors conducted 10 separate chi-square tests to test if crew groups were different in their reasons for being silent in the situation they remembered. This was achieved through comparing crew groups with their anticipated and viewed frequencies for each reason. All tests gave significant results (p < .001), confirming that a crew members group had a significant effect whether an individual reason for being silent was or was not chosen.


Research approach

Exploratory research to find the reasons why aircraft crew members weren't always speaking up about safety critical events in flight.


A total of 1,751 cockpit and cabin crew members of a European Airline participated in the study. Of these 1,751 participants there were 261 Captain's, 334 First Officer's, 307 Purser's and 849 Flight Attendant's studied.


Data collection occurred through three phases. Firstly, Bienefeld and Grote made live observations of 504 cockpit and cabin crew in a mixed crew flight simulator to observe their actual speaking up behavior and to help the design of the speaking up survey that they would eventually give to all participants. In the second phase Bienefeld and Grote designed a survey and tested its validity by sampling it on 128 aircrew members who encompassed the four groups. In the third and final phase aircrew were invited to take part in an online survey via the company email. No incentives were given and the survey was completely voluntary with all participant results being treated as anonymous.


To examine participant's past speaking up behaviour, Bienefeld and Grote asked them a yes/no question as to if they had ever experienced a latent voice episode in their position. Bienefeld and Grote defined a latent voice episode as "as ambiguous situations in which crew members had felt that speaking up was necessary for flight safety (e.g., observed errors or violations of procedures)" (Bienefeld & Grote, 2012, p.4). Participant's who then answered yes to this question were then asked, on a scale of 0 (never speaking up) to 100 (always speaking up), how many times they spoke up after experiencing latent voice episodes. This data was then analyzed to find out each groups mean and SD of past speaking up behavior. Captain's voicing concern to First Officer's was also included as "Speaking up".

To examine participant's reason(s) for silence, Benefeld and Grote asked each participant to recall one instance where they felt unable to speak up after a latent voice episode. Participant's were then given a list of 10 reasons for silence (see table two) and were instructed to choose the reason(s) that best explained why they chose to remain silent in the particular situation. They were also given the option to state and describe their own reasons for silence if they were not listed in the table. All reasons for silence were taken from Milliken, Morrison, & Hewlin's (2003) study except for perceived time pressure and perceived conflict between efficiency/comfort and safety as these reasons were identified by subject experts as further reasons crew might choose to be silent. Three subject matter experts confirmed high validity of the survey and all participants found it easy to recall past latent voice episodes and were able to identify with at least one reason for silence from the table.


Control Variables: Control variables were the gender, age and tenure of crew members as Detert & Burris's (2007) research indicated these variables can affect speaking up behavior.
Categorical Variables: What position each aircrew member was in (Captain, First Officer, Purser or Flight Attendant)
Dependent Variables Participant's past speaking up behavior and their reasons(s) for not speaking up.

Data analysis

The authors analyzed the data through calculating frequencies, percentages, central tendency and conducting NSHT.

Generalization potential

As this study focused on crew members from one European airline only, Benefeld and Grote note that future research should focus on whether similar results can be found in other airlines around the world with their different cultural contexts. Consequently further study is needed before this study can be generalized to other airlines and crew around the world.

1. Bienefeld, Nadine, and Gudela Grote. "Silence that may kill: When aircrew members don’t speak up and why." Aviation Psychology and Applied Human Factors 2.1 (2012): 1.
2. Milliken, F. J., Morrison, E. W., & Hewlin, P. F. (2003). An exploratory study of employee silence: Issues that employees don’t communicate upward and why. Journal of Manage- ment Studies, 40(6), 1453–1476
2. Detert, J. R., & Burris, E. R. (2007). Leadership behavior and employee voice: Is the door really open? Academy of Management Journal, 50, 869–884

Contributors to this page

Authors / Editors

Sam Dawson, Massey University ID:10045727

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