In everyday communication, we strive to explicitly transfer information to listeners and correctly receive information from speakers. These efforts aid in avoiding the possibility of miscommunications. However, every communication contains ambiguity and miscommunication, making every discourse potentially problematic [1
]. Therefore, much of what is said is neither completely true, nor completely false.
If miscommunication is unavoidable, then our communication task should be to minimize miscommunication in all circumstances [1
], because miscommunication can lead to unwanted consequences [3
]. In teamwork, when communicators are interdependent in achieving certain tasks or jobs, collaborative performance becomes heavily dependent upon communication [4
]. Considering the chances of miscommunication, the significance of its consequence, and the interdependence of teamwork, communication between pilots and air traffic control could likely generate frequent miscommunications. Miscommunication of this type can lead to deadly air disasters that have the ability to destroy a region or country’s tourist industry [5
In improving air traffic controller (ATC)-pilot team communication, studies report that both technical and relational factors are important. Nevertheless, existing research on ATC-pilot team communication emphasizes mostly task-related technical factors, such as contents, or medium communication [7
Although technical factors in communication are important at work, a large portion of communication in the workplace is informal or social. These informal communications may not be directly related to work tasks, but the role of these informal communications can go beyond relationship-building, such that they also support work-related tasks [9
]. While nontechnical human factors are recently considered to be important in air traffic management, informal communications and relational factors in ATC-pilot teamwork are still under-emphasized. Therefore, in the current study, we focus on the relational factors and examine how they affect work performance in controller-pilot interaction. Especially, in terms of ATC-pilot team communications, we invest them into task-oriented and relationship-building and examine how each type is affected by relational factors and sustainable performance in controller-pilot teams.
In measuring performance in airline operations, many studies have focused on quantitative outcomes. In ATC-pilot teamwork, team performance is usually measured by quantitative data, such as the frequency or proportion of missing acknowledgements, incorrect/partial readbacks, or missing call signs [10
]. Such quantitative measures are important in ATC-pilot team performance, but they prove difficult in capturing issues mid-process because the focus has been on quantifiable results and final outcomes.
As a supplement and an alternative to quantifiable concrete measures, team members’ perception about sustainable performance not only captures the results and outcomes, but also reflects social and interpersonal issues existing in the teamwork process [11
]. To capture the procedural issues, especially related to sustainable performance management, we use perceived performance measures from ATC and pilots to reflect problems and issues in the team working. We believe that adding relational factors and sustainable team performance measures in ATC-pilot teamwork expand our understanding in the domain of airline service.
2. Difficulties in Air Traffic Controller-Pilot Communication
It is reported that a large number of plane accident happen because of miscommunication and language issues [12
] and that they amount to 37% of all airplane accidents [13
]. To avoid accidents and successfully perform the landing operation and other given tasks on schedule, the ATC-pilot team is required to exchange accurate communications to successively complete collaborative tasks [5
Although correct and clear communication is essential in ATC-pilot teamwork, difficulties exist for ACT-pilot teams to maintain correct communication. First, they use radio-communication which makes it difficult to have clear communication all the time. Although it is reported that there is no significant difference between face-to-face and voice media communication in problem solving and information transmission [14
], multiple interactions between a single controller and many pilots limit each ACT to spend a very short time with a single airplane, possibly leading to congested frequencies and blocked transmissions [10
]. Second, for the pilots, long messages from the ACTs appear to overload their working memory, resulting in more incorrect or partial readbacks, as well as more message repeat requests [8
]. All these factors lead to missing acknowledgements, incorrect/partial readbacks, or missing call signs [10
]. In sum, difficulties in the work environment keep ACT-pilot teams from exchanging clear communications all the time.
3. Task-Oriented and Relationship-Building Communications
According to Habermas [15
], two types of communication exist between agents engaged in speech acts. First, when the purpose of communication is to achieve the speaker’s goal by asking and making the listener do certain behaviors, the communication is oriented toward success, leading communicators to instrumentalize one another as a means of achieving success. In a customer satisfaction study by Froehle [16
], this type of communication is termed task-oriented communication, which is aimed at achieving goals, solving problems, and making decisions [17
Another type of communication is oriented toward understanding the other party [18
]. Here, it becomes more important for the communicators to understand each other, rather than be successful in performing certain tasks. Thus, this type of communication is “person-oriented” [17
] and “relationship-oriented” [18
]. Froehl [16
] coined this type of communication relationship-building communication.
In ACT-pilot teamwork, most studies have focused on how the content of the communication is clearly transferred between ACTs and pilots, i.e., task-oriented communicaion, or how environmental and human factors affect their communication [10
]. While their communication is mostly task-oriented, it is also possible that there are elements of relationship-building communication in their dialogues. In aviation psychology, studies have examined the influence of ‘attitudes’ in performance [10
]. Because performance usually takes place in teams, and each member takes on a different role creating interdepdence, members will perceive the ‘attitudes’ of other members, from communication practices. Therefore, to investigate the effect of communication in ACT-pilot teamwork, not only task-oriented but also relationship-building communication needs to be considered.
8. Empirical Results
SEM analysis was performed (see Figure 2
), showing that the overall fitness of the model is appropriate for further analysis, χ2
= 169.232 (p
< 0.01), df
= 90, χ2
= 1.88, GFI
= 0.931, AGFI
= 0.895, NFI
= 0.941, NNFI
= 0.962, CFI
= 0.971, IFI
= 0.972, and SRMR
= 0.037. In addition to the direct effects among the constructs shown in Figure 2
, the sizes and significances of total effects combining direct and indirect effects are shown in Table 4
While both task-oriented and relationship-building communications were significantly associated with task interdependence (β = 0.619, p < 0.01; β = 0.232, p < 0.05, respectively), the relationship with task-oriented communication was more than twice as strong as the connection with relationship-building communication. Although smaller, the relationship with task-oriented communication was still larger than the relationship with relationship-building communication when adding the indirect effects of task interdependence via shared leadership (β = 0.693, p < 0.01; β = 0.489, p < 0.01, respectively), supporting Hypothesis 1.
Both task-oriented and relationship-building communications were significantly associated with shared leadership (β = 0.170, p < 0.05; β = 0.332, p < 0.01, respectively), but the relationship with relationship-building communication was stronger than with task interdependence. The difference became larger when indirect effects were added to the comparison (β = 0.170, p < 0.05; β = 0.360, p < 0.01, respectively), supporting Hypothesis 3. However, contrary to our expectation, no significant relationship was found between task-oriented and relationship-building communication (β = 0.163, ns), failing to support Hypothesis 7.
A significant relationship was found (β = 0.435, p < 0.01), supporting Hypothesis 6. Once pilots and controllers engaged in task-oriented and relationship-building communication and these are performed successfully, they led to communication satisfaction, and then finally to improved team performance. Task-oriented communication exerted much more influence (β = 0.537, p < 0.01) on ACT-pilot team satisfaction than relationship-building communication (β = 0.204, p < 0.01), supporting Hypothesis 8. Since task-oriented communications are about the planned tasks at hand, it is natural for mechanical task-oriented communication to show stronger influence on communication satisfaction than the organic relationship-building communication.
However, in terms of the relationship between communication and team performance, only relationship-building communication had a significant direct effect (β = 0.167, p < 0.05), while task-oriented communication did not show significant association with performance (β = 0.137, not significant). This result does not mean that the ACT-pilot team should regard relationship-building communication as superior to task-oriented communication. Since communication satisfaction exerted the highest direct influence on team performance (β = 0.344, p < 0.01), and task-oriented communication had a large influence on communication satisfaction, having successful task-oriented communication between ACT-pilot teams indirectly affected team performance (β = 0.223, p < 0.01). When adding both direct and indirect effects, task-oriented communication showed larger influence than relationship-building communication on team performance (β = 0.360, β = 0.237, p < 0.01, respectively). In sum, both task-oriented and relationship-building communication affected team performance, supporting Hypothesis 9 and Hypothesis 10.
With regards to the relationship between task interdependence and team performance as well as the association between shared leadership and team performance, these two antecedents of ACT-pilot communication showed significant effects on team performance (task interdependence—team performance relationship: β = 0.116, p < 0.05; shared leadership—team performance relationship: β = 0.195, p < 0.05), supporting Hypotheses 2 and 4. Considering the total effects on team performance, among the measured constructs, task interdependence and shared leadership were largest (β = 0.662, p < 0.01; β = 0.626, p < 0.01, respectively). Finally, there was significant association between shared leadership and communication satisfaction (β = 0.282, p < 0.01), supporting Hypothesis 5.
9.1. Theoretical Implications
First, it was confirmed that task interdependence exerted more influence than shared leadership on task-related communication. Considering the nature of task interdependence such that the interacting partners are relying on each other to achieve shared goals, partners will naturally focus on the communication related to successful collaboration. In aviation operations, pilots and controllers engage in different roles to complete the tasks at hand, naturally leading to the perception that each party cannot perform the tasks with the other party simply following. Under these circumstances, each interacting partner becomes highly dependent. Also, since communication between the ACT-pilot team takes place through the radio medium, the contents, clear transmission, and understanding of the communication become very important, which leads the team members to engage in much task-oriented or task-related communication.
Second, the current study investigated the sustainable relationship between relationship-building communication and the precursors in ACT-pilot teamwork. As mentioned above, shared leadership becomes more powerful when the interacting parties are cross-functional and thus lack hierarchical authority [31
]. It is also reported that in a physically demanding environment, shared leadership affects communication among the workers which leads to relationship-building. As expected, the current study confirmed the hypothesis that shared leadership predicts relationship-building communication more than does task interdependence.
Finally, we confirmed the hypothesis comparing the degrees of relationship between each communication type and team performance. As expected, while the relationship between relationship-building communication and team performance was significant, the association between task-oriented communication and team performance was not. This result is likely due to the fact that team performance items measured overall perceived performance and efficiency of the team rather than specific performance scores. However, it still is interesting that the perceived task performance in a collaborating group is not directly influenced by technical ability but by relational capability.
9.2. Practical Implications
Findings from our study may be helpful to controllers, pilots, and relevant parties involved in airline operation service. First, practitioners should emphasize sustainable relationship management in collaborative work groups, especially in work teams collaborating under constraints in time and space where workers have greater physical and mental difficulties in performing tasks than workers without such constraints. As measured in this study, task interdependence implies that each working partner does not have the entire knowledge and information needed to fulfill a successful task, thus all partners in work groups should depend on each other to accomplish assigned tasks [11
]. To enhance task interdependence, each party in the collaborative group needs to understand the role as well as the working conditions of the other party. For example, Hindson [50
] suggested a co-training and exchange program. Such training is expected to enhance collaborative work partners’ recognition that without help and proper understanding of their colleagues the collaborative work task is not likely to be successfully achieved.
Second, from the finding that task-oriented communication directly improved communication satisfaction and indirectly increased team performance, we suggest that task-oriented communication needs to be enhanced in collaborative work groups. Previous reports and studies provide guidelines for effective ACT-pilot communication such as non-standard phraseology and effective listening/readback skills e.g., [7
]. Thus, continuously focusing on these technical features will keep the chances of aviation accidents and incidents low.
Third, we found that relationship-building communication promoted communication satisfaction and sustainable performance. In this study, relationship-building communication is described as being courteous, professional, and attentive in communication. Therefore, when interacting with work partners, improving these qualities in communication is expected to increase task performance. Usually, flight attendants undergo thorough etiquette training because they serve passengers from different cultures [51
]. Compared to flight attendants, the required etiquette may be less strict for pilots and controllers because they hardly encounter passengers and they use technical language during work. However, insufficient etiquette training for controllers and pilots may result in lowered task performance in flight which could increase the possibility of incidents or accidents.
9.3. Directions for Future Research and Conclusions
There are several drawbacks to this study. First, we selected task interdependence, shared leadership, task-oriented communication, relationship-building communication, and communication satisfaction as the variables that influence ACT-pilot team performance. Although these are representative and frequently applied variables for teamwork in the field of organizational studies, there could be many other situational, environmental, or unexpected variables influencing team performance. Therefore, examining team members’ reactions in various industries toward other variables would be meaningful for future research.
Second, to elaborate the measurement of aviation team performance, it seems necessary to develop a new model that better reflects pilot and controller group characteristics. Hence, investigating the difference of bilateral influence among constructs that could exist during aviation operation will be important in drawing meaningful implications and useful information for practitioners.
Third, since the current study focuses on relational factors and performance, there is no concrete performance measures used in this study. Therefore, including both perceived and specific performance measures in the future would better capturing the group dynamics interaction and their outcomes.