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Risk Management A Systemic Approach

Cockpit Boredom: A Risk All Managers Face

Vernon Grose | February 1, 2014

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Airplane on tarmac

Crazy, odd airline incidents are headline news these days. Recall two pilots overflying their destination of Minneapolis for 150 miles before realizing where they were? Or what about the airliner with more than 100 passengers landing at the wrong airport within Branson, Missouri? And you've probably heard about the airliner that recently made an unexpected "nose-dive" landing in New York, instead of using the landing gear. The litany of goofy, seemingly inexplicable airliner mishaps seems endless.

A favorite—but not always admitted—excuse for such embarrassing airline happenings is cockpit boredom! Yes, pilots do get bored. The public image of airline pilots is a professional and sophisticated one. But, they are also human—and often find their work boring!

And, before risk managers smile and dismiss any concern about boredom in their worlds, that odd risk exists in every organization, agency, and community. Ignoring boredom spells peril!

Of course, cockpits don't exist in most venues where risk must be managed. So, what's the "risk link" between cockpits and the vast diversity of settings that risk managers are expected to control?

Boredom's Taproot

While a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, I often flew "jump seat" in the cockpit on different types of aircraft with many airlines over varied routes—even internationally, in diverse weather conditions. That rare experience enabled me to extensively observe cockpit behavior firsthand. Yes, I've seen boredom there. But I would admit that I have occasionally dispelled that boredom by challenging pilots.

Most folks imagine airline pilots to be under unavoidable and intense pressure, navigating through skies without signposts, controlling diverse aircraft functions in constantly changing environments while charged with responsibility for hundreds of lives. And they are.

However, what seems rare and exciting can actually become mundane after it has been performed hundreds of times. Before too long, in every setting, work can gradually become dull. Everyone becomes bored when whatever we are doing makes us weary and restless by its uninteresting nature. So boredom is more than just failing to be challenged.

Why Boring Work?

We have come a long way from the agrarian lifestyle of our ancestors, whose work generally involved sweat and physical exercise. Most employment was directly related to meeting basic survival needs.

Trends in Society

Not only has society changed greatly since the Industrial Revolution; it is still changing. And the direction of change is leading us to increasingly boring work. Three indicators of societal change support this sobering conclusion: complexity, mechanization, and specialization.

  • Complexity—No one would deny that everyday life is getting more and more complex. Whether in highways, investment options, churches, or catalogs, complexity is increasing at a rapid rate. On one hand, complexity is a blessing, spelling freedom of choice. But on the other hand, freedom provokes risk—risk of confusion, disinterest, fragmentation, inattention, and misunderstanding
  • Mechanization—Everywhere, machines are replacing people. They are answering telephones, defusing explosive devices, setting executive agendas, refereeing football games, writing letters, washing cars, and buying/selling stocks. Yes, they even fly aircraft. As technological wonders gobble up more and more human activities, people are becoming only monitors who watch machines work. Thereby, work no longer has meaning—it's not related to accomplishment, and it prevents ego satisfaction.
  • Specialization—Complexity's twin, specialization, shares its genes. Where one is, the other is also. A person's brain can process only so much. If a job exceeds that limit, it must be broken down into "people-sized" specialties. Law, communications, medicine, education, tourism, entertainment, government, architecture, and banking are all breeding specialists for this reason. The prime result of specialization is loss of the big picture. When you can no longer see the whole scene, you are likely to become bored with the tiny sliver that you do see.

People-Work Mismatch

Work in a technological society can be either dynamic or static. Each has its own risks. Boredom emerges in the latter. Static work doesn't change with time. So once mastered, it is boring. Its risks include daydreaming, lack of motivation, and compensating with other activity.

On the other hand, people vary in their ability, education, and experience. Some can handle dull, routine tasks better than others can. My book, MANAGING RISK: Systematic Loss Prevention for Executives, stresses the need to properly match people with their work.

There is a crucial but subtle management point where high risk is generated—the matching of people and work. First, high risk occurs if over-skilled people are assigned repetitive, unthinking tasks that do not challenge them. Second, if mismatching is reversed—with under-skilled personnel given work beyond their abilities—equally high risk is generated.

Our minds were designed to think, not monitor. Despite incentives, threats, training, and the best will in the world, our minds must and will find something to do. Monitoring is deadly because it will be replaced by irrelevant activity.

Boredom's Risks

Everyone has been bored and not suffered for it. So boredom is not a risk per se, but, coupled with critical tasks, it can lead to disaster. The 1979 Three Mile Island incident, the 1984 release of methyl isocyanate gas in Bhopal, India, and the 1986 Soviet nuclear accident at Chernobyl all involved people with boring assignments who committed judgmental blunders, resulting in incredible losses.

Today, those three historic disasters could easily be matched or exceeded—as 550 Air Force officers who serve 24-hour shifts in capsules 60 feet underground were reported in January 2014 to be "underappreciated and bored." They're waiting—as their predecessors have done for 50 years—to launch nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. Boredom has high potential for indescribable catastrophe.

Cause of Human Error

"To err is human; to forgive, divine." That maxim on human error is widely known. In contrast, a worn-out cliché like "pilot error" is totally meaningless. It's like saying, "Something failed because it didn't succeed." Preventing human error—if it is to be prevented—must be defined in terms of specific types of inadequate response to expected behavior. In that sense, cockpit boredom is a cause of human error.

Inappropriate Work Assignment

There is little agreement among experts on how to overcome on-the-job risks of boredom. At any time, any job may lead to enough boredom that it could be dangerous. My earlier-mentioned book lists several approaches to preventing undesired or hazardous behavior by those who must perform boring work.

One approach (without being pejorative) advocates dull work being done by dull people (those who can best tolerate sameness). Another approach urges deliberate hiring of overqualified personnel, trying to delay as long as possible their departure by making the workplace as accommodating as possible regarding work hours, pay, dress codes, socializing privileges, and minimum supervision. A third approach suggests distributing dullness so that the workday contains only a limited time when people have to endure sameness—the rest being spent in varied or challenging work.

Yet, we can see that none of these approaches is likely to solve the problem of boredom in every setting. Returning to airliner cockpits, the first of those approaches will not work since we don't want dull pilots because there are some very critical times during flight when alert, expert skills are needed. Airline pilot unions readily resist the second approach, and today's dazzling airliner cockpit precludes the third approach.

So, for airline pilots, boredom creates the risk of being the wrong person 95 percent of the time. And the consequences of that risk can be catastrophic.

Don't rush to judgment, however. Try to imagine being cooped up for 10 hours in a small closet with nothing to look at farther away from your nose than 18 inches, especially after you've gone through the same experience hundreds of times. That's one description of an experienced airline captain on an overnight transoceanic flight.

How is that captain to keep that active mind busy when the primary function after takeoff and before landing is to scan a myriad of computer displays? Can you see how it isn't too different from counting sheep?

The Solution

All risk managers, regardless of their professional risk domain, face potential loss rooted in boredom. So to manage that risk, they must have the capability to:

  • foresee situations where boredom exacerbates risk in their responsibility and
  • implement countermeasures to control risk generated by boredom.

Boredom's Best Antidotes

No risk can be managed until it has been identified. Seems obvious, doesn't it?

Yet, the wide variety of techniques being used to identify risk today is amazing! Dozens of them are proliferating—all of them promising success. Brainstorming, surveys, interviews, working groups, risk mapping, experiential knowledge, documented knowledge, risk lists, risk trigger questions, lessons learned, risk-oriented analyses ... Despite these well-intentioned and sincere endeavors, they all suffer the same malady—they can only provide partial inventories of risk! Plenty of risks escape detection and thereby lie unidentified—ready to erupt in surprise losses.

So how can risk managers be certain that their search for risk is complete and that their identification process embraces every risk source, especially those pesky but devastating boredom ones? It's very simple. Wise risk managers must employ two proven, readily available answers.

All-Encompassing, Systematic Pursuit

The only way to be certain that a search for risks (including boredom ones) has not overlooked one single risk is to consider and then manage the enterprise of interest (corporation, agency, or organization) as a system, as defined in Figure 1. That simple but fundamental concept requires bounding everything associated with the enterprise—including all its risks. Thereby, the risk manager is assured that there cannot be any overlooked risks because all risks are now contained within the system.

Figure 1:

System Definition Image

The enterprise becomes a transformer—converting its known inputs into desired outputs —as shown in Figure 2. Thereby, it becomes possible to undertake an all-encompassing, womb-to-tomb search for risks.

Figure 2:

The Systems Approach

The stage is now set to start that search. But how will that happen?

It's not enough to have all risks collected within a singular, bounded system. The risks in such a random collection would be unidentified—lumping significant with insignificant. And not only would all those risks be unidentified; they would also be unmanaged!

Managing risks means to have control over them, to exercise direction over their consequences, to direct with skill their influence within the enterprise. As long as risks remain a conglomerate—clustered and bunched together—they cannot be managed.

Therefore, a second vital step, sorting and organizing that hodgepodge of all enterprise risks for their significance, requires another proven and successful technique.

Universal Ranking Mechanism

Boredom is a human, not a chemical or physical, risk. And there are no research handbooks or ranking tables available to grade its likelihood or severity. Human risks cannot be ordered for significance, for example, among tables for strength of materials.

In 1980, the National Academy of Sciences recognized this difficulty of determining probabilities of human behavior and integrating them with physical or chemical failure data to obtain a single ranking of risk. It endorsed the scenario technique as the best means of defining priorities for managing those risks.

Beyond the complexities of ranking human risks, most other risks—whether mechanical, financial, social, chemical, legal, political, or environmental—are sufficiently diverse that attempting to combine them into a singular ranking is also virtually impossible. That's why risk zones, risk maps, risk blocks, or risk matrices are so frequently used. However, they only group (rather than rank) risks.

But ranking is essential! Why? Because there are never enough resources to control all risks. Only significant risks can afford to be controlled or removed, while the remaining identified risks must be accepted by management.

So, to place all risks into a singular ranking, logic demands the following:

  • All risks must be identified.
  • Identified risks must be evaluated for their impact on the enterprise.
  • Evaluated risks must be ranked for their significance to enterprise management.
  • Significant (but not all) risks must be controlled by enterprise management.

There is really only one known means for ranking the entire panoply of risk—including boredom risk. The risk scenario! Figure 3 describes its four components.

Figure 3:

figure showing description of a risk scenario

Can you recognize that boredom involves all four scenario ingredients: man, machine, management, and media? Once each scenario identifying boredom as a specific risk (i.e., cause of loss) has been written, it continues to be the means for evaluating it, as well as ranking it among all other enterprise risks! Thereby, a risk manager has a totally integrated systematic array of ALL enterprise risks, including those involving boredom.


For the first time, it is possible to systematically identify, evaluate, rank, and control even such obscure or subtle risks as boredom! No longer is it necessary to hope, guess, or speculate about risks for which there are no mathematical or test data.

Further, executives can finally know their number one risk, their number two risk, and their number three risk so that their risk control investment can be predicted and justified.

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