Sharing my article which appeared on International Maritime and Port Security journal (Jan/Feb 2018)
Stories on Maritime Leadership
Sharing my article which appeared on International Maritime and Port Security journal (Jan/Feb 2018)
My first experience with back-pain started when I was a Second Officer on a break-bulk ship. We had loaded refined wheat flour in bags from Italy to Yemen.
At Aden, with a tenth of the cargo remaining to be discharged, we found bags with mold in them. The affected bags had become green on the outside and hard to touch. The consignees would not accept the cargo and the stevedores stopped working.
To reduce the quantity of damaged cargo, the Captain ordered us to segregate the cargo- good from bad, so that the still intact ones could be discharged by the stevedores. So, our crew, me included had to manually remove the damaged bags. I was in my early twenties so I was working away furiously with the team. Even when others would take a break, I would continue- kind of ‘showing-off’ my youthful strength. Little did I know that this would instead be a mistake which would cause me troubles for many years to come.
At night, I got up from my sleep to get a glass of water. Just as I reached for the glass by my bedside, a searing pain shot up from my lower back. It was so intense that I believe I passed out. In the morning, I woke up on the floor and my back hurt like hell. I could not even make it to the dining salon. It took me two days of complete rest and multiple doses of painkillers for me to keep watch. Not only was I off the cargo removal duty, fearing that other crew would also end up with back pain, the Captain had engaged trained stevedores to finish the rest of the job.
For several years after that, even as Chief Officer and Master, the pain surfaced every now and then, though thankfully not to that extent. It would appear after I had inspected a few double-bottom tanks with my back bent for several hours. I soon started wearing a back-support strap when I expected to go up and down cargo tank in the drydock.
Surprisingly, in my first few years working in the shore office, I still had episodes when the back pain was too much and I worked from home instead. But these were different. I’m right handed so the stiffness usually was on the right side of my torso. Besides the physical pain, back pain can make us irritable, and we’re not at our best as a leader.
Over the last few years, I’ve researched the condition in depth and have taken preventive steps. It has worked and I will share these with you. I haven’t taken a day off over the last five years because of back pain, even though I still perform weighted deadlifts, squats and back-rows in the gym.
First, a few facts:
1. Worldwide, back pain is the single leading cause of disability and one of the most common reasons for missed work; it is estimated that two work days are lost per year for every full-time worker.
2. Experts estimate that up to 80% of the population will experience back pain at some time in their lives.
3. Back injuries (disc herniation and lumbosacral strain) are the number one reason for permanent disability claims among seafarers in the Philippines.
4. Low-back pain costs Americans at least $50 billion in health care costs each year; add in lost wages and decreased productivity and that figure easily rises to more than $100 billion.
5. Back pain is the third most common reason for visits to the doctor’s office, behind skin disorders and osteoarthritis/joint disorders.
But back pain need not be dangerous:
6. Most cases of back pain are mechanical or non-organic—meaning they are not caused by serious conditions, such as inflammatory arthritis, infection, fracture or cancer.
7. Most people with low back pain recover, however reoccurrence is common and for small percentage of people the condition will become chronic and disabling.
Causes of back pain:
Back pain can be caused by disease of the internal organs, such as kidney stones, kidney infections, blood clots, or bone loss. However, the most common back pains are sprained muscle (like I did) or the serious slipped disc- due to accidents and sports injuries. In addition, poor posture, obesity, and psychological stress can cause or complicate back pain.
What can you do about it?
I’m not going to give medical advice as this is for you to consult your physician and chiropractor. Do it without delay.
I can however suggest some preventive actions to avoid work related injury like I did.
1. I should not have lifted those bags by bending my back. Instead I should have lifted by exerting my legs. It would have helped if I had kept the bag close to my body and had I not twisted my torso to throw the bag. Better still, I should have taken on a partner for lifting those bags. In my later years, I would repeat this caution every morning during our tool box meetings.
2. Warm up and stretch before you start your work- whether on ship, or in an office.
3. Maintain proper posture. Like my mother used to say “don’t slouch”.
4. Whether you’re standing during the navigational watch for hours, or sitting in front of the computer, or working in an uncomfortable position. Take a break every hour. Breathe deeply and stretch to minimise back fatigue.
5. Sleep on a mattress of medium firmness to minimize any curve in your spine. If you’re a ship operator, keep this in mind when ordering mattresses for your ships.
6. Smoking impairs blood flow, resulting in oxygen and nutrient deprivation to spinal tissues.
7. Wear comfortable, low-heeled shoes.
Be a leader with a backbone. A strong backbone.
Many thanks to Dr.Rajesh Botchu for his expert medical inputs for this article. He is a Consultant Musculoskeletal Radiologist and Orthopaedic Surgeon. More about what he does at www.mskradiology4u.co.uk and www.bonesradiologist.co.uk
“Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”
"There’s a fly in my soup, Captain". The Chief Engineer said, visibly upset.
"And I blame it on you" continued the Chief Engineer.
Everyone in the dining room stopped to look over where the Chief Engineer and Captain were seated. Some even looked back into their own soup to check for flies. Not me. I was a young Cadet, only few months into my career and this was the first major conflict I had seen on the ship which otherwise was about giving orders and following them- no questions asked.
The Captain squinted his eyes in confusion "Come again?"
"I know you told the Cook to put a fly in my soup" the Chief Engineer’s voice was raised and agitated.
Long story short, some very unpleasant words were exchanged and it ended in everyone finishing their dinner early. The Chief Engineer was replaced in the next port.
Leading up to the ‘fly in the soup’ incident were small warning signs which made sense when I looked back. It started with arguments about the ship’s RPM or the fuel figures, and at times the engine maintenance. Both the Captain and the Chief Engineer had been complaining about each other in their absence. Meetings had become a ‘blame game’ setting. Eventually things came to a ‘either him or me’ standpoint between the Captain and the Chief Engineer.
As I felt then, and as I feel about it now- it was all wrong. There are more such examples- from physical assault on board (fishing vessel Captain Billy Haver), to mutinies (HMS Bounty), these otherwise capable professionals let small conflicts get out of hand.
The 'Drydock' Conflict:
Years later, I was in a similar dining room for the daily-repairs meeting at a Chinese dockyard. This time I was in command of the ship and was concerned about getting the ship back on schedule. Just then, the Fourth Engineer came into the meeting with a worried look. He informed us that a weak spot had been found on the fuel tank boundary when the steel around the tank was being sand-blasted.
The Superintendent, the Chief Engineer and I checked out the weak spot for ourselves. Now we found ourselves in a dilemma; we could go ahead with the repairs, and it would cost us three extra days; or, we could leave it unattended, and risk the weak spot springing a leak during the voyage. We got the technical, operations and the commercial team in the office on a conference call, right there in the dining room.
The Technical Manger fired the first salvo "How the hell did we miss this spot during the pre-docking gauging?"
Me: "They gauged this bulkhead but they must’ve missed it."
Operations Manager: "OK now that we have to deal with it, what’s the plan?"
Superintendent: "We need to repair it."
Commercial Manager: "Are you out of your f**** mind? We’ll have to rearrange the booked cargo for another ship. No way!"
Technical Manager: ‘"And the additional repairs and stay in the yard will make us overshoot the drydock budget!"
Chief Engineer: "Look, you got to take care of these things from the office. I don’t want the fuel leaking into the cargo holds at sea- and then we have to deal with it."
Me: "And the leaked fuel could damage the cargo."
Commercial Manager: (pounding his fist on his table now) "We already had so many delays with this bloody ship…and you always put me in this position where I’ve to say sorry to the shippers!"
Me: "I don’t like the news either but we need a solution. We could delay for now but we may have to stop the ship again for repair few months down the line. My recommendation is we do the repairs. I’ll personally see to it that it gets done as early as possible."
Chief Engineer: "Yeah. About the budget, we’ll discuss here and see if we can shift some of the docking jobs to be done by the crew. No promises but we’ll sit down and discuss."
Technical Manager: “OK I’ll speak with the Director and get back to you within the hour."
During this debate, there were colourful exclamations, raised voices, subtle humour and heated exchanges which I’ll save you the trouble of reading. Finally, we did get the approval to get the additional repair done. Yes, there was a price to pay for the delay, but we were assured of the safety of the cargo during the voyage. Months later when I met the Commercial Manager in the office for a briefing, he let me know that despite the tough discussion that day, he was pleased with the outcome. He also realised this when he had learnt that another ship had sprung a fuel tank leak during the voyage and had to be taken off service for repairs, causing massive disruption and embarrassment to that other company.
To Argue or Not to Argue?
Arguments are inevitable in today’s workplace. Whether they are productive, like the ‘drydock’ one, or destructive like the ‘fly in the soup’ case depends on how leaders steer conflict in the right heading. Firstly, is everything up for discussion? Should every decision be debated upon? Should we remain polite in a conflict, or freely express our emotions? When should you stop arguing? What if you can’t seem to come to an agreement? What if you feel the other person is personally attacking you? What if one can lose their job if they argue too much, or oppose the more powerful person in the conversations? Will I look weak if I give in? The questions that run through our minds during a conflict at work can be quite challenging. The words and tone a person uses might press one of our ‘hot’ buttons.
For most people, conflict means stress, and that in turn triggers a flight, fight or freeze response. Research shows that high conflict relates to low team productivity and work satisfaction. On the other hand, task based debates help teams to understand the topic from all perspectives.
Avoiding or suppressing conflict is not good either. Avoiding debate all together restricts the options available on the table, and often to unsafe or unproductive outcomes. On the Bow Mariner, the Chief Officer ignored the safety concerns of his junior officers during routine tank cleaning operations. A while later, an explosion sank the ship and took the lives of twenty seamen. Unresolved conflicts lead to resentment, and poor work morale- leading to a ‘fly in the soup’ kind of outburst at some point.
Just as each one of us has a unique world view based on our experiences, we are conditioned to conflict in different ways. It starts with childhood - if our parents permitted debate, or was it order and comply, or would they give the silent treatment when in disagreement. We would be further conditioned by the environment in our schools and workplaces. Peers argue differently among themselves than in a subordinate-superior debate. And of course, ‘over-thinking’ introverts argue differently from the more vocal extroverts. Whatever our background, we need skills to be able to handle and manage conflict productively as each situation demands.
Productive Conflicts need a Suitable Environment
First and most important - the leader needs to set up the right environment for constructive, healthy debate, and even allow them to become intense, heated discussions. The right environment for this is where teams have high levels of openness and trust with each other. Leaders should provide team members with psychological safety; leaders should say it in very clear terms (and follow it up) that they will not be side-lined or tagged as a ‘negative person’ for their differing views. Leaders also need to reduce the power-distance effect of a superior-subordinate relationship during a debate to allow the free flow of views. Leaders need to remove the fear and stress of conflict from the workspace.
What leaders must not do is incite fear to suppress conflict and to control their team members. Leaders must neither create conflict for its own sake, or promote a ‘divide and rule’ toxic environment for inducing productivity or competition. Research shows that such high conflict environments are counterproductive to the team’s goals.
Keeping Conflicts under Control
The next task of the leader is to control responses during a conflict- as soon as they become aware of one. They must ensure the conflict stays focused on solving the problem at hand and does not escalate into a personality clash. The leader must ensure that the tension does not escalate; here, the use of humour helps. Appoint ‘a devil’s advocate’ so they have the permission to be creative in bringing up opposing views. I also recommend that the leader gives his final opinion towards the end of the debate; going in early discourages team members from coming up with more options. The below ‘Telegraph Model for Manoeuvring Conflicts in the Right Direction’ is an aide-to-memory for leaders for facilitating healthy debates on board.
The Telegraph Model for handling Conflicts
Bring more information to the table and list all possible outcomes (not just two diametrically opposite choices). During a closed room debate, I find a whiteboard to be very helpful tool to help keep the team’s focus on the issues to be systematically sorted out. If you’re unable to come up with an agreement at the end of the meeting- narrow down the options and revisit the discussion. Of course, if the issue is time-sensitive, the leader must make the decision based on all the inputs gathered during the debate.
Keep your Conflict Skills ready at all times
Conflict situations can arrive without warning. We were once manoeuvring into a harbour with a Pilot on board. We had completed the Master-Pilot exchange and had established a good rapport with the Pilot soon after his boarding.
Half an hour later, the officer-of-watch announced loudly for everyone on the Wheelhouse to hear: “Our planned speed here is 6 knots. Our current speed is 9 knots”
Pilot: “Never mind. It’s OK”
Me: “We’ll need time to reduce the speed before we approach that turn. Best if we keep the speed as planned.”
Pilot (pauses, checks his watch and then looks up): “OK let’s bring to dead-slow ahead”
I wish I could say that all conflicts can end with such a quick and positive outcome. I’ve also had the experience of workplace conflicts which did not end well, or were left unresolved. Once we’ve learnt from these experiences, it’s time to move on. Playing those moments repeatedly, or criticizing oneself does not help anyone.
“I don’t agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time. If the desired outcome is defined clearly with a stated objective and agenda listing topics or questions to cover, no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes. Request them in advance so you can best prepare and make good use of the time together.”
- Tim Ferris, the author of “The 4-hour Workweek”
On a fine day in early 2005, the Master of the ro-pax ship Arahura planned to carry out an emergency steering drill as was required by regulation. Usually the crew tested the non-follow up (NFU) system for the drill but on this occasion, the Master decided to test the steering with the solenoid valves in the machinery space. Problem was, he didn't inform anyone else of his intentions until the last moment.
The Master went down to the steering gear where he found that the 1st Engineer was not available due to some other priority work. The Chief Engineer expressed his concern of carrying out this unplanned procedure but the Master insisted, based on his experience with a sister ship. When ordered to move the rudder to starboard, the crewmember operating the solenoids, due to an incorrect marking with the solenoids, moved the rudder to port.
On the Wheelhouse, the 3rd Officer and Cadet were unaware of the details of the steering drill. And when the rudder went mistakenly to port, they informed the Master of the need to put the helm to starboard but did not mention the presence of another ship in the vicinity. The Arahura now started swinging wildly to starboard and due to the alertness of the crew on the other ship, missed a collision by just 3 cables.
Among other factors, the investigating authority, Maritime New Zealand found that:
• The Master of Arahura did not hold a prior meeting with the senior engineering officers to discuss the technical aspects of the drill.
• The Master did not inform the drill team or bridge that the execution of the drill would involve a different test method.
• The Master did not hold a pre-planning meeting to discuss the drill and how it would differ from the test method that had been used previously.
Meetings are where team focus is achieved. Here, we set up an atmosphere where the team members get comfortable communicating with each other. These meetings are very important for safety so each person knows what the others are doing and they avoid incompatible tasks. It’s also a good place to share problems so you can get inputs and even offers to assist from the rest of the team.
Here’s how to make meetings effective, whether at sea or on land:
1. Set up meetings at regular intervals. Don’t just have them when you’re having problems. The MAIB investigated a fire-related fatality on the Arco Avon where the third Engineer had worked on a failed fuel pipe without informing anyone. His reason for not doing so is likely to have been influenced by the on-board culture of routine lone working and absence of regular and frequent communication.
While it is very tempting to put off meetings under the pretext of being busy, my experience has taught me that these meetings should not be cancelled unless there’s a pressing reason to do so. You’ll be amazed at how many new challenges come to light during such meetings.
2. Cap them at 30 minutes. Start and finish on time; finish earlier if no one has anything more to add.
3. Always announce the agenda at the outset. It helps people to prepare and set expectations. A template helps to get the meeting off to a quick start and in the required direction. When you structure your meeting, the entire crew will appreciate your taking their valuable time into consideration.
4. Set an amiable atmosphere. Sit or stand in circles. Prohibit the use of electronic devices unless it’s for taking notes or referring to the agenda.
Sketch by VS Parani in a moment of inspiration.
5. Take notes. Record comments and draft an action plan.
6. Encourage participation. Meetings are not the place to display authority, order, shout, argue, or preach. Limit the time each participant gets to speak. Draw out reluctant speakers by asking them open-ended questions such as: Is there anything we have not considered?
On the bulk carrier, the Great Majesty, the Master, Chief Engineer and Chief Mate met to discuss the operability of the ballast pumps. The Chief Engineer simply replied that one of the pumps could not be used. The Chief Mate did not seek to clarify if there were any other restrictions in using the ballast system, neither did the Chief Engineer elaborate.
Actually, when the ballast pump was disassembled for repair, the suction pipe and valves were not isolated. When the Chief Mate remotely opened the pump’s suction valves, the open pump’s casing was connected to the main seawater line, which resulted in the flooding of the Engine Room.
7. Conclude. Discussions are great teamwork tools, but they must always end in action plans. The last two minutes of the meeting should be spent summarising who will do what, by when, and how you will communicate.
8. Motivate and Energise. I’ve always found meetings to be a good way to connect with and motivate my team. Getting an opportunity to speak also helps team members build self-confidence. In addition, regular meetings help assess people’s individual capabilities, which is very important for a leader to know.
Meetings are a great opportunity to clarify issues, sharpen focus and align the team with the objectives. They help support a robust safety culture on the ship. Meetings are a great leadership and teamwork tool, and effective leaders run productive meetings.
What else do you do to make your meetings matter?
Effective meetings are discussed in greated detail in the book Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas, available from Whittles Publishing, and on Amazon.