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  • Writer's pictureAlejandro Buriel Rocha

Share Vulnerability — How habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation.

On July 10, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232 experienced catastrophic failure when a microscopic crack in a fan inside the tail engine caused the plane to lose its main and backup hydraulic control lines. Captain Al Haynes, first officer Bill Records, and flight engineer Dudley Dvorak found themselves unable to control the plane. The odds of this kind of failure were calculated at one in a billion, and pilots were not trained for it.

Haynes managed to stop the plane from rolling by using the throttles, but he couldn't control the altitude or direction. The plane was wobbling like a poorly made paper airplane, and the pilots were struggling to keep it aloft. In the first class cabin, Denny Fitch, a pilot trainer for United, offered his assistance.

Fitch was shocked at the chaos in the cockpit, but he quickly assessed the situation and offered his help. “Tell me,” Fitch said to Haynes. “Tell me what you want, and I’ll help you.” Haynes gestured to the engine throttles that were located on the console between the two pilots. He took over the engine throttles, and shoulder to shoulder, the three men began to communicate in a particular way, through short, urgent bursts.

HAYNES: Anybody have any ideas about [what to do about the landing gear]?

He [Dvorak] is talking to [maintenance].

FITCH: [Dvorak] is talking to [maintenance]. I’m gonna alternate-gear you.

Maybe that will even help you. If there is no fluid, I don’t know how outboard

ailerons are going to help you.

HAYNES: How do you, we get gear down?

FITCH: Well, they can free-fall. The only thing is, we alternate the gear. We

got the [landing gear] doors down?


RECORDS: We’re gonna have trouble stopping too.

HAYNES: Oh yeah. We don’t have any brakes.

RECORDS: No brakes?

HAYNES: Well, we have some brakes [but not much].

FITCH: [Braking will be a] one-shot deal. Just mash it, mash it once. That’s all

you get. I’m gonna turn you. [I’m gonna] give you a left turn back to the

airport. Is that okay?

HAYNES: I got it.

[A few minutes later.]

HAYNES: A little left bank. Back, back.

FITCH: Hold this thing level if you can.

HAYNES: Level, baby, level, level…

DVORAK: We’re turning now.

FITCH: More power, more power, give ’em more power.

RECORDS: More power, full power.

FITCH: Power picks ’em up.

The term pilots use to describe this type of short-burst communication is notifications. A notification is not an order or a command. It provides context, telling of something noticed, placing a spotlight on one discrete element of the world. The average volumen in a normal take of or landing is 20 per minute, they communicated more than 60 times per minute during this landing. Notifications are the humblest and most primitive form of communication, and they are the key to creating successful groups. Successful groups, whether they are fighter pilots, improvisation comedians, or NBA basketball teams, rely on a culture of safety and vulnerability to succeed. In these groups, members feel safe enough to share their vulnerabilities and ask for help when they need it.

Haynes, Records, and Fitch demonstrated this vulnerability in their actions during the flight.

Fitch was willing to offer his help, even though he had never seen a complete hydraulic failure before. Haynes and Records were willing to accept his help and admit that they were unable to control the plane. This vulnerability allowed them to work together and communicate effectively, using notifications to share information and make decisions.

Interacting in this stilted, unconfident fashion, the crew of Flight 232 solved a complex series of problems while flying at six hundred and forty kilometres per hour. They figured out how to optimally distribute power between the two engines and how to try to anticipate the porpoising movements the plane was making. They communicated with the cabin, attendants, passengers, flight control, maintenance, and emergency crews on the ground. They chose routes, calculated

descent rates, prepared for evacuation, and even cracked jokes.

The team's vulnerability was on full display as they communicated and tried to save the plane. They admitted their lack of control and worked together to find a solution. The plane crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, but 185 of the 285 passengers survived, thanks in large part to the teamwork and vulnerability displayed by the crew.

In the weeks afterward, as part of its investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board placed experienced crews in simulators and recreated the conditions faced by Flight 232. The simulation was run twenty-eight times. All times, the planes crashed, spiraling to the ground without getting close to Sioux City.

All of which underlines a strange truth. The crew of Flight 232 succeeded not because of their individual skills but because they were able to combine those skills into a greater intelligence.

The key, as we will help you to learn, involves the willingness to perform a certain behavior that goes against our every instinct: sharing vulnerability.

The story of Flight 232 demonstrates the power of vulnerability in high-stress situations. When individuals and groups are willing to admit their weaknesses and work together, they can accomplish incredible things. The crew of Flight 232 didn't try to hide their lack of control; instead, they admitted it and worked together to find a solution. This vulnerability saved lives and serves as a reminder that we can all benefit from being vulnerable in our own lives and work.

The most successful groups have three key traits: they are safe, shared, and challenging. Safety means that group members feel safe enough to be vulnerable and ask for help. Shared means that group members have a shared vision and purpose, and they work together to achieve that goal. Challenging means that the group sets high expectations and pushes its members to improve.

Let us help you to develop a culture of share vulnerability!

The transcript of the emergency landing which can be found at

References: “The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups”. By Daniel Coyle one of our personal Culture super heroes.

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