March 29, 2012

Bad attitude

This is not the first time something like this happened.

Conducting a practical seamanship session for wannabe ratings and cadets the other day, I found almost the entire group trying their best to shrink- or slink- into the shade and away from the summer sun. I know from prior experience that this is not because of the heat alone, and many trainees are actually quite concerned that they will tan and their skin will get darker. A cadet in an earlier batch had even gone as far to tell one of the seamanship faculty that he 'could not work in the sun' for fear of becoming darker.

I call these kinds of trainees the 'Fair and Lovely' crowd- and make sure they stay out in the sun longer, but that is beside the point. The reality is that this behaviour is just another nail in a pattern that adds up to a temperament that makes these kids close to unfit for a career at sea. At last part of this is due to a mismatch between expectations and reality and part of it is due to the way the profession is sold to the young (You will be living free in an air-conditioned ship!). Whatever, it all ends up with a bad attitude and a disappointed, frustrated and eventually incompetent or less safe worker.

Knowledge and skill are basic requirements in any profession, and are relatively easily measured, but the intangible yet vital factor- attitude- is much more problematic to gauge. True, there are all kinds of suspiciously snappy sounding 'tests' out there. Behavioural theorists have gone to town with objective personality testing, validity testing and "gamification" (why don't they just call it a scenario-based game play- which is what that really is- is beyond me) and many other models that try to take reactions from respondents and translate them to measure attitude.

I have little confidence in these tests as applied to mariners- these are usually poorly tinkered versions of tests designed for other industry that do not have the extreme requirements of safety, environmental protection or critical regulatory compliance that shipping has to deal with. A more rigid and less than democratic on-board structure- with the crew staying together for months at a time- also makes for some unique issues and renders some of these tests somewhat less than useful.

Then, these tests are often 'open' in other industry, which is to say that the person being evaluated is aware of who has said what, and is usually given a copy of the entire report. I have always been against any open system of evaluations at sea on principle; in my opinion, many sailors, managers, officers and Captains do not have the maturity to handle open evaluations, and shipboard hierarchical structures do not promote this form of testing anyway. More than twenty-five years ago, I tore up my own copy of an evaluation report that the Captain gave me without reading it; I feel as strongly about all this today.

A slightly different version of the open test system is the open 360-degree evaluation where opinions are sought on a person's attitude from his seniors, juniors and peers. This- when properly collated and analysed- is a system that just might work on ships, provided it is not kept open; do crew who have to sail together and trust their lives to one another really need to know who said something negative about whom?

Which is not to say that the evaluation of attitude is not important at sea. The vitality of a good attitude- or indeed, its immense contribution to team spirit and work ethic- cannot be overstated. Efficiency, professionalism, ethics, conscientiousness and initiative are all dependant hugely on a worker's attitude; this single attribute can often make the difference between a poor worker and an excellent one- and between disaster and safety.

The problem is that shipping is needlessly following evaluation models that are ill suited to it. The reality is that almost every crewmember on every ship knows instinctively which shipmate has a bad attitude- and with much more certainty than any of these models ever will.

Instead of making the evaluation of seafarers more complex and jargon oriented, we would do well to devise a calibrated evaluation system that can be both simple and useful. It appears to me that the 360-degree system can be modified to fit, and fit well, requirements at sea, because the simple fact is that the true character or calibre of a shipmate cannot remain hidden for long. By seeking input from all those who come into contact with any crewmember- from the Captain to the lowest ranked rating on board- raw data fed into such evaluation systems can end up doing much to improve attitudes and enhance professionalism and safety at sea.

And of course, we should test the 'Fair and Lovely' crowd too.

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