As a pilot, you are a member of a unique group of people — a group that is sometimes difficult to understand, at least for non-pilots. In some ways, pilots are the most consistent and even-keeled group anyone is likely to meet, which makes it all the more surprising when a pilot’s behavior seems contradictory and inconsistent. What comprises a typical pilot’s personality? What characteristics do they generally share? Industrial psychologist Robert Rose, Ph.D., answers these questions and more as he takes a look at why understanding your personality profile may help your personal and professional relationships work a lot more effectively.
The term “personality” is used in many ways. In popular parlance people have “personality” if they are fun and outgoing. Some discussions use arcane words for psychologist-to-psychologist use and make no more sense to the layperson that “ILS” would make to a non-pilot. All too often “pop psych” treatments are unnecessarily dense, even silly, and merit the term “psychobabble.” Some aspects of personality can be measured, but some “personality tests” are too simplistic. Easy-to-use but glib and shallow, these tests lump people into a few overly-general categories and have about as much practical use as your horoscope.
“Personality” In A Useful Sense
Stripped of the nonsense, personality traits are simply the typical ways we react to situations. For example, no one acts or feels the same way all the time but some of us are much more likely to respond “yes” to a party invitation and some of us more likely to pass and stay home with a good book. The outgoing (extroverted, gregarious, etc.) person does not go to every party nor is the more reserved (introverted, etc.) person a hermit. Their traits describe the way they normally act. An adequate examination of the many traits of personality requires high-level tests with professional interpretation — and even those tests and interpretations must be viewed with an acknowledgment of their limitations.
Let’s discuss the way personality and occupations affect each other in the practical sense used by industrial psychologists. Then we will see what we can explain about pilots.
Personality And Occupation…
There is no one type of accountant, no one type of football coach, no one type of salesman. Instead, members of each occupation tend to have “family resemblances” in how they act and even look. And that “family resemblance” is because our physical and personality traits interact with our occupations.
Job choice is affected by personality. In turn, personality is best understood in parallel with directly analogous physical traits. Consider how our physical strengths and weaknesses affect our choice of sports. If you are short, not much of a jumper but quick with your hands and fast on your feet, are you going to go out for basketball or welterweight boxing? You could do either but you will probably lean toward the sport that fits your strengths and put on the gloves.
Personality traits lead us in the same way. Given a choice, people choose jobs that fit their personality traits, e.g., outgoing people are more likely to go into sales and detail-oriented introverts more likely to go into accounting. Just as physical abilities have some influence on the sports we choose, we see “family resemblances” in personality traits of different occupations because those factors have influence on our occupational choices.
Our job choice in turn affects personality — what we want is not always what we get. What if you had no choice about the sport you chose and were forced to box even though it did not fit your talents? Well, if you were forced to box you would find upper-body strength increasing, footwork improving and you would do a much better job of ducking!
In the same way, if you were forced into sales work, for whatever reason, you would have to be more outgoing due to the job requirements. Perhaps, especially if you were a shy person you would, at first, have to force yourself to meet new people and make conversation. But if you continued that behavior long enough, simply through practice, that social contact would become easier. In the same way, if you had to work as an engineer you would become more focused and organized simply through practice.
For short periods we often force ourselves to do things out of necessity, things that are not part of our normal inclination or makeup. After extended periods of time, however, these behaviors become natural, habitual, and are reasonably described as personality traits.
…Getting Back To Pilots
Not everyone is suited to fly. If you had been pessimistic and lacking in self-confidence, you probably would never have wanted to be at the controls of something that soared thousands of feet in the air! If you could not discipline yourself to be detail-oriented you probably would not have wanted a job where your life (and the lives of others) depended on following a detailed checklist. Our traits affect the jobs we choose and they affected your choice.
On the other hand, if someone not naturally suited for aviation were forced to fly, his or her self-confidence would probably increase as would his level of detail-orientation. The jobs we choose affect our traits.
Pilot Personality Traits
Let’s look at some typical personality traits of pilots, including some traits that are sometimes misunderstood. Then we will discuss why even the “odd” traits make perfect sense in the context of your job as a pilot. Finally, in each case we will also talk about the practical implications that this understanding has for other people, e.g., managers in organizational environments.
The Pilot Personality Traits That Make Obvious Sense…
Pilots generally have good social skills and good reasoning. Like many professional people, pilots have to deal with complex information, make decisions and deal with people. Thus, they tend to be bright and capable of good social interaction when called for. In these traits you, as a pilot, are similar to managers, consultants and many other white-collar occupational groups. So far, so good. But there is more to the picture and the picture becomes less clear for many of the people you associate with.
As a pilot you probably — justifiably — see yourself as one of the most consistent and even-keeled people. Please understand that others can see you, at times, as chimerical. There are reasons for both points of view and, as is always the case, it all makes sense when you think about it.
Let’s look at four major personality traits related to outlook on life, work style, work interest and cooperation. Are pilots optimistic, hardworking, interested in their work and cooperative — or just the opposite?
…Pilots And Optimism…
From the vantage point of an industrial psychologist, pilots are the standard for optimism and confidently-expressed attitudes. That part makes sense, doesn’t it? As we have discussed, the idea of being at the controls of a vehicle that is going to soar thousands of feet in the air “weeds out” most people with negative attitudes. Regular examinations of various kinds add to that selection process. Even when you do suffer from negative feelings — as every human does, at times — if you are like most pilots, you have a strong incentive to “keep emotion out of the cockpit.” Recordings of cockpit emergencies show that pilots do an excellent job of that emotional control.
On the other hand, mention the “optimist and positive” pilot profile to some managers and they will shake their heads. I had one group of managers who demanded to know: “If these pilots are so positive why are they often the ones who sit in meetings and bring up negative concern after negative concern? Not to mention nit-picking the most picayune details?”
Think about it … you have to understand the way most people view “worry” and “pessimism.” Most people equate concern about potential problems with “worry.” That’s a very natural mistake — but it is a mistake. When people become obsessed with every negative possibility to the point that it diminishes their capacity for joy, that is “worry.” When people consider, and deal with, realistic issues, that is planning.
Most non-pilots do not understand the job demands of the cockpit. They do not know that you are trained to focus on myriad details and part of your optimism is derived from considering every possible thing that might go wrong before you take off.
In a practical sense your non-pilot manager must understand that your concern with what might go wrong is not negativity. Instead, it is the pilot’s natural training to look for problems that he/she does not even remotely imagine are going to happen. It is fastening your safety belt taken to an extreme. And since, as a pilot, many lives depend on your decisions, you tend to take things to an extreme.
…Pilots And Their Work Style…
As a pilot, you have to pass more physical exams than most people. In addition, if you are like most of your pilot kinfolk, you have high personal standards that extend to your physical condition. You almost certainly have some physically-demanding hobbies. And we all know you have to make many decisions in the course of narrow time frames of takeoff, landing and various emergencies. Of course, you have good energy and the term “lazy” would never apply to you.
Given what we have noted about stamina and decisiveness, managers — many of whom come from the ranks of “do it yesterday” salesmen — often wonder why pilot employee, John Doe, spent five days working and reworking a document that could have been done in one day! What happened to that diligent and energetic person? Think about it … pilots are energetic in the sense of having good stamina. And they act rapidly in carrying out the normal complex sequences of flying because these sequences are highly practiced.
But the workstyle demanded by the cockpit environment is very different than non-pilots imagine. To complicate matters, even some direct observation can obscure a vital fact, a fact that you take for granted but others find astonishing. So let’s emphasize what you already know: Pilots, although they may often be rapid-fire in the cockpit, are trained not to rush!
Explain it to the non-pilot this way: Pilots are much like emergency-room physicians in the way they handle non-routine situations. And like ER physicians they can be greatly misunderstood. Many an upset ER visitor has been angered by the apparently lackadaisical, even bored response of the physician. But that slow and calm response is anything but lackadaisical and there is not a shred of boredom.
The physician knows that 30 seconds of calm reflection — seconds that can seem like hours to anguished visitors — is time that will probably not cost a life whereas a quick and poorly thought-out impulse certainly could cost a life. One of my physician clients told me, “A lot more people die from the wrong dosage of pain medication than of pain.” That was not a cold and un-empathetic statement; it was an observation of fact.
Similarly, as more than one pilot has explained to me, “Doc, if the left engine conks out at 25,000 feet, quickly sit on your hands. You have time to make a correct decision; a fast, wrong decision may kill you.”
Perhaps there are times that you as a pilot need to understand that some business projects can be rushed with no significant loss of effectiveness. Equally important, help others to understand that to a pilot “rushing” is often synonymous with “making hasty and dangerous decisions.”
…The Pilot’s Work Interest…
Interested in what is happening at work? No phrase is spoken with more anguish by pilots than “I don’t know what’s going on around here!” If you are like most pilots you want to know about anything that affects your work, even tangentially. As one frustrated company vice president told me: “Pilots claim to want to know what’s going on. Fine, fine. So I had a group meeting and ten minutes into the meeting I looked out and almost all the pilots were looking at their watches and getting visibly bored.”
Some people are simply not very inquisitive and they spend little time listening or reading. Other people like all the data they can get and spend hours in the library or on the ‘Net. We can understand both of those extremes. The pilot’s use of information is unusual and does not fit either of the neat “boxes” above.
As a pilot your conversation with the tower — which is all in a day’s work to you by now — is in fact very unusual. A lot of information gets transmitted, but not a lot of time is spent transmitting it. The adjectives that spring to mind are “condensed” and “to the point.” In a practical sense, it may be hard for non-pilots to understand that pilots do want information but they want the essential information highly condensed and succinct. Managers and co-workers need to understand that a one-hour meeting is going to be a very useful 59 minutes if the essential points are summarized in the first sixty seconds.
And, perhaps pilots should understand that most of the world does not use the terse communication of a controller.
…Pilots And Cooperation
People often confuse “assertive” — which involves speaking up and selling your point of view — and “aggressive,” which involves often-angry confrontation. Like other confusions, this one is understandable. Many assertive people do tend to be confronting and downright aggressive and many people who are afraid of confrontation do not like to present their ideas forcefully and are best described as very non-aggressive. Nevertheless, the two traits of assertiveness and being confrontational are separate and pilots illustrate that.
As a pilot, you have to be assertive but your training emphasizes low confrontation. You know that the cockpit is not a place for fistfights! Pilots are generally polite to their passengers and try to stay calm in having disagreements. “Firm but polite” describes the typical pilot.
Yet, if I describe the “cooperative pilot” to some people I find myself in a fight. One administrative director inherited the flight department and quickly found that the chief pilot would not take some of her orders. She told me she had never found such blatant disobedience when it came to scheduling and flight plans.
But think about it … the authority of a pilot is unlike most authority. I sum it up to non-pilots by quoting a pilot client from years ago, a quiet and unpretentious young man, who explained what it meant to sit in the left seat: “If the President of the United States is on board and I’m in the left seat, I outrank him when it comes to decisions regarding the safety of the flight.”
The moral is that, in many cases, pilots like yourself are as cooperative — or more so — as most white-collar employees. But, if it has to do with flying the aircraft — especially safety issues — you can be hard-nosed to the point of intransigence. That’s not just the way it is; that’s the way it should be also. Many people simply think of safety as one more issue and feel that subordinates should acquiesce on any and every issue.
As I have elsewhere in this article, I sometimes use the analogy of the physician. If you are a hospital director you may tell physician Jane Doe where to park, where to office, hours to use the copier, etc. — but neither you (nor the President of the United States) can tell her how to treat her patients.
Pilots should remember that sometimes a request can be handled and still meet safety standards with some small corrections. Managers should be thankful their pilots are so safety-minded — even if that sometimes is expressed as stubbornness.
Pilots are, for the most part, bright and socially-skilled like most professionals. No one will have a problem understanding that. Understand that many other pilot traits make just as much sense but some of those traits are not as obvious and understandable. Let’s review the four we discussed in this article.
Pilots are positive but they remain so by questioning everything that could go wrong. They are diligent but they do not like rushing, especially to meet artificial deadlines. They are interested in what’s going on but like to have a quick overview of the big picture at the outset and they like their information to be concise. Finally, they are cooperative but never ask them to delegate decisions about safety; it’s not a choice they have nor one passengers would want them to have.
Communication across departments and professions almost always improves when we understand why people — including sales people, accountants, lawyers, pilots, etc. — act the way they do. Help your managers and coworkers understand your personality profile and the relationships may work a lot more effectively.
Maybe even your family members could learn something from this article!
My thanks to many of my clients and colleagues including Mr. Jeff Roberts of GE Capital SimuFlite. Any mistakes are attributable only to the author.
Dr. Bob Rose received his Ph.D. in 1972 and has been consulting to business since 1976. He has worked with many aviation firms assisting in hiring, teambuilding and training. He has written many articles and books including Practical Issues in Employment Testing, required reading by major testing companies for their staff.