Bring in a third party at an impasse

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

When United Airlines was making its first big purchase of the 737 aircraft, it ran into a disagreement with pilots. Boeing had designed the cockpit to accommodate either two or three pilots. The disagreement within United centered around how many pilots should fly the plane.

United believed, of course, that two pilots should fly the plane. Two pilots cost less than three. The union wanted three pilots, since it anticipated that the workload on a 737 aircraft would require it.

That management and union leadership reached an impasse is no huge surprise. But what is surprising is what came next: The union and United jointly sponsored an independent study of the differences between two- and three-pilot crews.

The study revealed no significant difference between the two options. With a team of three, pilots were able to visit the cabin more frequently. But in other respects, there were no negatives.

These days, 737s are routinely flown by two pilots, not three.

United’s collaborative approach not only provided an effective decision, but the right one.

Bottom line: When two parties have conflicting ideologies or goals, ask an objective third party to study the problem, and agree in advance to the decision that best fits the evidence.

— Adapted from Leading Teams, J. Richard ­Hackman.

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