Through the Captain's window

Stories on Maritime Leadership

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How Leaders Manoeuvre Conflict

“Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.”
-Ronald Reagan

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"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.

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 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.

Summing up

  • Create the right environment well in advance before conflicts start occurring at your workplace.
  • Manage conflicts constructively using all tools both active and passive, with a fine sense of balance.
  • If you feel the conflict is getting out of hand, seek help from an external mediator.
  • No matter how the conflict ends, move on.

Disagree?

 

References:

            

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Argo- The Shipping Supercomputer

This is an article I wrote for the SeaNews magazine. It's part sci-fi, part reality.

The complete magazine e-copy is available at this link and my article is on page 60. There are many other interesting articles in this edition.

seanews

 

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The Round-Table: Making Ship-board Meetings Matter

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“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.

Meeting on ship cartoon

 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?

 

 

References:

Accident Report Arahura & Santa Regina Close Quarters Situation in Cook Strait on 27 January 2005

Marine Accident Investigation Branch, U.K., Report no: 17/2016, Arco Avon

ATSB Transport Safety Report Marine Occurrence Investigation No.257, Engine room flooding on board Great Majesty

Effective meetings are discussed in greated detail in the book Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas, available from Whittles Publishing, and on Amazon.

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The Old Man and the Sea

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“I may not be as strong as I think, but I know many tricks and I have resolution.” 

                                                  - Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

 

The Captain on a ship if often called the ‘Old Man’. More often, the ‘grumpy old man’. I didn’t realize it then, but now as I have sailed into my early 40’s, I excuse my own grumpiness saying that there’s a physiological explanation for it.

But it’s not always about how cheerful you are. Today I want to touch on the sensitive topic of the effect of aging on job performance.

Ouch.

We all will get old one day or the other.

Yes, we will.

So, how do we lead ourselves and our teams as we grow older.

Getting old has its benefits. You have more experience, you gathered a great amount of knowledge, and people respect you just for your grey hair. 

Aging after 40 also has its downside:

  • The volume of the brain declines with age at a rate of around 5% per decade.
  • Neurotransmitters such as dopamine decline by around 10% per decade and this has been associated with declines in cognitive and motor performance. Memory too declines gradually.
  • Bone density decreases by about 1% every year.
  • Peripheral vision narrows, near vision becomes less acute, eyes no longer focus as quickly, and night vision degrades.
  • Cardiovascular disease is the major cause of maritime service disablement. Diet, exercise, smoking and stress management abilities are the lifestyle factors that influence the chances of a coronary incident putting an end to your career at sea.
  • Muscle strength loss above the age of 50 occurs at around 15% per decade.

I can go on about each part of the body- but you get my drift. This should be taken seriously as working at sea requires keen psychomotor and cognitive skills, as well as executive functions such as monitoring inputs. What this means in terms of work is that an older navigator may miss observing the drift of the ship, or may lose track of multiple targets on the radar. The Chief Engineer’s daily inspection rounds from ‘tunnel to funnel’, especially on the modern megaships which are the equivalent of a 20-storey building, will progressively become difficult.

Take for example, the grounding of the Hong Kong ferry Xin Jie with 81 passengers onboard. The cause of the incident was due to sudden onset of dizziness of the 57 year old Assistant Master when he was steering. The Assistant Master had been suffering from hypertension and was taking Nifedipine twice daily to control the blood pressure. The drug has a side effect of causing dizziness which it did when he was having the con of the ship.

Or the 66 year old Master on the Maria M which ran aground on the Vanguard Shoals off Sweden. The investigaton report states that the Captain confused rudder position and turning rate and gave erratic orders which took the ship from a relatively safe position to the shallows. He was really a 'grumpy' old man who often called his bridge team 'idiots'.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is the aviation equivalent of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and puts the upper age limit for single-pilot commercial air transport operations at 60 years. If they have a co-pilot, they can work until the age of 65. This is based on ICAO research of on-job performance evaluated on simulators and it rates this testing mechanism as better than medical checks.

For sake of comparison, the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) and the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) adopt medical checks as the filter for service at sea, supplementing it with revalidation training every five years.

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                                                                                          Courtesy: Dr Anthony Evans, Chief - Aviation Medicine Section, ICAO

 

Good news is research confirms that you can look and be younger than the number of birthdays you’ve had. I’ve had the privilege of working with and observing some 65+ leaders way sharper than I could ever hope to be. But no two 50-year olds are alike; how well they perform depends on the various choices they make. To be able to get the benefits of experience back into the industry for as long as possible, leaders need to be conscious of this fact and make intentional choices to their lifestyle, and staying updated with technology in the workplace.

The sea is an unforgiving workplace. It does not care how old or experienced you are. There is no room for error. I’ve listed some strategies to lead yourself and your mind-body machine in my book Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas. Some of these strategies are:

  • Eat right, Fuel up.
  • Sleep well, beat fatigue.
  • Exercise: Become a Man of Steel.
  • Stay Positive: Get your dose of Vitamin B+
  • De-stress: Have a Relief Valve.

How are you preparing your mind and body for the evolving leader in you? 

And if you’re in charge of managing both young and older professionals, develop goals, expectations and evaluation methods around the different skill sets each age group brings with them.

Now excuse me while I go get my fish-oil supplements for my memory. And then head to the gym.

 

 

Annual health checks are recommended if you’re over 40. Dental checks every 6 months regardless of age.


References:

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Captain, how much gas do you have?

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'Fighting corruption is not just good governance. It's self defense'

                                                                            - Joe Biden

 

 

 

I recently read a P&I Club correspondent's report that customs officials in Senegal have started asking arriving ships to declare the quantity of CO2 gas on board. I would respectfully follow this requirement but for knowing that there is no relevant regulation. The only explanation offered is that the authorities are applying article 74 of the Customs Code more 'vigorously'. These sealed bottles are fitted on board as part of the fixed and portable firefighting equipment. But ships face the prospect that they could be fined for inaccurate declarations.

What next? To declare the amount of steel on the ship?

corruption

As usual, I lace my humour with a tinge of reality.

There are certain places which maritime insurers (P&I Clubs) routinely warn about, that are noted for their frivolous fines. Thing is, I see that countries issuing frivolous fines are in the bottom half of per-capita income list. Higher ranked countries are more transparent and least corrupt.

Take for example, Singapore proved its intention to uphold rightful business practices in the case Public Prosecutor v Syed Mostofa Romel. This inspector was carrying out a safety inspection on the MT Torero at Vopak Terminal Banyan Jetty in Singapore. The inspector produced a list of several high-risk observations which could deny the vessel entry into the terminal. The master considered the observations as minor ones. The inspector offered to omit the findings from his report in exchange for USD 3000. The master paid the bribe but secretly informed his company.

A sting operation a couple of months later, again at the same terminal, caught the inspector red-handed. Within a year, the Singaporean court sentenced him with prison time and fines. It's good to see Singapore deter corruption in both the private and public sectors through quick court proceedings and heavy sentences.

It's also good to see various shipping companies team up through the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network (MACN) to fight corruption. The success stories here are growing in number.

There is still some way to go: Even today, agents email the Master to keep 18 cartons of cigarettes ready on arrival to present to the authorities. Government officials need to wake up and look beyond their own pockets. Less corruption means more prosperity for the country, and the industry. Agree?

 

Link: Maritime Anti-Corruption Network

 

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