Wednesday 26 May 2021
London.UK. Yrhen Bernard Sabanal Balinis, HRAS Advisory Board Member, offers a powerful take on how young maritime professionals can flourish and grow in their profession by cultivating their ‘assertiveness’ skills.
‘Say-lors: seafarers with something to say’
Safebridge defines assertiveness as “the ability to express beliefs and opinions boldly and actively. It involves speaking up, challenging others by asking thoughtful questions and taking initiative when working with others”. PsychologyToday says that it is a “social skill that relies heavily on effective communication while simultaneously respecting the thoughts and wishes of others. Individuals who are high in assertiveness don’t shy away from defending their points of views or goals, or from trying to influence others to see their side”.
However, too much assertiveness can be misconstrued as overconfidence and subversion to authority while too little of it denotes timidity and shyness. I would like to define assertiveness as the perfect balance of confidence and competence. Without confidence and assertiveness, competence lays barren and remains an untapped potential. Without competence and assertiveness, confidence is mere bragging.
Moreover, culture also plays a major factor to assertiveness. In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell he introduced the concept of Power Distance Index (PDI). It is one of Hofstede’s Dimensions created by Dutch Psychologist Geert Hofstede. Gladwell writes: “Power distance is concerned with attitudes toward hierarchy, specifically with how much a particular culture values and respects authorities.” Citizens from low power distant countries find no problem in questioning and communicating their intentions; whereas those who have high PDI tend to utilize “mitigated speech”. Speech mitigation refers to an attempt to downplay the meaning of what is being said. It commonly happens when we are humbled, or embarrassed, or when we’re being courteous to superiors.
Linguists Ute Fischer and Judith Orasanu studied aviation pilots and first officers on what different levels of speech mitigation would they employ at a crucial scenario: command, crew obligation, crew suggestion, query, preference or hint. Captains and those higher in authority said they will employ command. On the other hand, first officers chose the easiest to refuse: the hint.
The book outlines several plane crashes as a case study of how culture, lack of assertiveness and inadequate communication lead to fatalities. But the aviation is not alone in dealing with cross-cultural diversity in a high pressure environment; maritime transportation shares their dilemma.
In this age, vessels are cauldrons of various ages, genders, races, and cultures each distinct to each other. A just safety culture is needed emanating from the top going to the bottom of the hierarchy.
According to an experience of Rich Madden published in GCaptain:
As we maneuvered up a winding channel, the channel curved to port, yet the pilot ordered starboard rudder as we approached the next turn. Our 3rd officer […] said, “Mr. Pilot- the channel goes to port, why are you using starboard rudder? The pilot responded by glancing at the rudder angle indicator and out the window. He then turned and told the helmsman, “Midships,” followed shortly by “Port 20.” The pilot then turned, smiled at the 3rdofficer, and said, “Thanks.”
Madden continues, “The bridge team (including the helmsman, lookout, cadet deck officers and captain) are all there to assist in error tapping.”
Merchant navy, like its military counterpart, still operates in a linear order where the command must come from the top down. And it has to be so or else confusion and chaos will arise. However, be it deck, engine or galley department, subordinates are also integral part of the shipboard leadership and we must include them in the conversation.
A five step assertiveness process
There are several systems to raise a concern to higher ranking authorities. A five step assertiveness process can be employed or as I want to call it, the five S of assertiveness:
- Start with the formal title (Captain, pilot, etc.)
- Say the trigger statement: “I have a concern”
- State the concern with details.
- Suggest a recommended action.
- Seek permission to implement the recommended action.
However, not everyone understands assertiveness well. There are still senior officers who will reprimand a subordinate for questioning their ideas and an almost equal number of junior officers, ratings, and cadets who are afraid to speak their mind out of fear of repercussions. There are also others who preach to be assertive but once assertiveness has been exhibited, they shun it.
Are we breeding the future generation of maritime professionals as yes-men? Or, more than sailors, we need more say-lors— sailors who have something substantial to say at the appropriate moment in appropriate ways.
NB: OP-ED. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Human Rights at Sea.