The IHST, The Elephant, The Rider and The Path

A lot of smart, highly experienced helicopter people are frustrated. Since its inception in 2006, a lot of work has been done for the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) with the goal of preventing accidents, but helicopters are still crashing from entirely preventable causes. Some IHST supporters have asked, “How do we fix stupid?” Others ask, “How can we reach the people who own and operate their own helicopters and don’t come to our safety conferences?” Psychology, neuroscience and a simple analogy about riding elephants may hold the key.

Here is why you need to know something about this potential key to preventing more accidents. Helicopters save lives and enable work that would be difficult or impossible by other means. Despite their vital role in society, the public perception of helicopters is not as positive as it might be if the industry could improve its safety record. Despite recent progress, there are still far too many accidents occurring for all-too-familiar reasons. These accidents can be prevented!

There are over 500 people from all around the world doing volunteer work for the IHST. The IHST’s regional teams have analyzed over 1,000 helicopter accidents and produced toolkits, brochures, fact sheets, videos and other materials to promote the best accident prevention methods identified by those analyses. Since the IHST’s inception and all this work, the number of helicopter accidents happening around the world each year has declined, but with people still dying in preventable accidents, there is still much more to be done.

If you look at the body of work done by the IHST and made available for free on its website ( you might conclude with an objective mindset that the IHST has clearly identified the most common causes of helicopter accidents and provided more-than-sufficient means to prevent those accidents. The IHST has indeed made a compelling case for improved helicopter safety, but that case has been tailored to the conscious, logical mind. Recent research in psychology and neuroscience show us, however, that at least 95% of the decisions we make every day do not engage our conscious minds. Most of our decisions take place instinctively in our unconscious minds.

In two books[1] Psychologist Jonathan Haidt offers a useful analogy, which points to what might be missing from the approach taken so far by the IHST. Haidt likens our unconscious minds to an elephant and our conscious minds to an elephant rider. The rider can train the elephant and influence its direction, but when rider and elephant come into conflict about which way to go, the elephant wins. Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch uses Haidt’s analogy and describes how to train the elephant to follow the rider’s desired path.

The IHST has been talking and writing to the elephant rider, but appears to have failed to reach, in an effective way, the elephant. It is time to acknowledge the “elephant in the room.”


The book Switch offers key steps for directing the rider, motivating the elephant and shaping the path for the elephant (see Attachment 1). Having already given lots of direction for the rider, the IHST might gain the most by focusing on the steps for motivating the elephant and shaping the path.

The Heath brothers suggest that the first step for motivating the elephant is to “Find The Feeling”. They give examples of how behavior changes were caused by getting people to see and feel, firsthand, the results of the actions that need to change. In the commercial helicopter industry this approach will likely need to show the key actors (owners, pilots, and maintenance technicians) the very human and vulnerable side of the trusting customers who use their services. In the case of individuals who fly their own helicopters, this approach will likely need to show the potential impacts on the families and friends who depend on these pilots to get home safely.

The Heath brothers’ second step for motivating the elephant is to “Shrink The Change”. The IHST has already focused on four key areas for accident prevention (Safety Management Systems, training, systems & equipment, and maintenance practices). To follow the Heath brothers’ advice for motivating the elephant, it might be best to narrow the focus on just one thing that will do the most good. With personal/private operators being the source of the most accidents, perhaps preflight risk assessment is the one thing that needs the most emphasis for now.

The third step for motivating the elephant is to “Grow Your People.” For the IHST, this means creating a sense of identity around safe helicopter flying. Emirates Airline’s Human Factors Manager, Nicklas Dahlstrom, once observed during a meeting of the IHST’s Middle East & North Africa (MENA) team that the pride of the helicopter profession seems to be in overcoming great risks to do heroic deeds. Nicklas urged the IHST to find ways to make safety the pride of the helicopter profession.

The Heath brothers’ advice on shaping the path for the elephant might help create a sense of identity around safety in the helicopter industry. Their advice aligns with the advice given by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power Of Habit.   Safety Management Systems (SMS), training programs, maintenance practices and systems and equipment like health & usage monitoring systems (HUMS) and flight data monitoring (FDM) programs can “tweak the environment” and build habit-strength safe behaviors. Leadership is key to “rally the herd” behind safety.

The IHST has done the analysis to justify its recommendations. The IHST has provided the tools to appeal to the elephant rider and those tools can build the path for changing the elephant’s behavior. Consistent with the promotion element required in SMSs, the IHST and all those who support it must do more to motivate the elephant. We must connect to deep emotions and challenge the beliefs that lead to unsafe behaviors. We must focus on the key change that will do the most good and lead to other supporting changes – like tipping over the first domino in a line of dominoes. Along the way, we must use our best marketing skills to make safety the pride of the helicopter industry.

[1] The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Attachment 1


Goal, Strategy and Structure

In the introduction to this series of articles, I defined the a “winning culture” and said that building one requires a goal, a strategy for achieving the goal, a structure for executing the strategy and habit patterns where people tend to do the right things, even when there are no applicable guidelines and no one is watching.

In this article, I will describe the goal, the strategy and the structure – the “why”, the “what” and the “how” for the journey toward a winning culture. The goal needs to be inspiring enough to make people want to get better at what they do and to be willing to do things differently in order to get better.

The goal needs to call people to their highest purpose – something that will be deeply satisfying to them personally and professionally.  Amazon’s vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.  Disney has been successful for decades with the simple goal of making people happy.

As Simon Sinek says in his book Why, leaders have to “talk the talk” about the inspiring goal and their deepest beliefs about it in order to attract to them people who believe what they believe.  Leaders and their followers, who believe what they believe, must all “walk the talk” about the importance of the inspiring goal so that everyone else can see that the talk is not just talk.

You will need more than a charismatic leader with a lofty goal.  As an oil field worker in West Texas once told me after a presentation on a new safety program, “people are watching what you do more than what you say.”

In addition to commitment to an inspiring goal, you will need a strategy for achieving it.  The strategy must be clearly linked to the goal and focused enough to be achieved with the available resources.  Strategic objectives should be few (five at most – preferably three or less).  Companies that undertake 10 or more strategic objectives or major change efforts usually accomplish none of them within any reasonable time frame.

The strategy will be more readily accepted if it is supported with hard data.  For example, the International Helicopter Safety Team’s (IHST) strategy for preventing helicopter accidents is focused on safety management systems, training, systems & equipment and maintenance practices.

The IHSTs strategy is supported by the analysis of over 1,000 helicopter accidents by its regional teams around the world.  Go to for more information on this example. The structure for executing the strategy should, in most cases, reflect the Shewart/Deming cycle of “plan, do, check, act” or other typical quality management approach.  This structure should typically include a documented and accessible management system with clear definition of objectives (e.g., mission and vision), core values, critical roles & responsibilities, key processes and procedures, including reporting and review, and a change management process.   Competent resources must be provided to carry out the critical activities.

To get everyone to appreciate the need for this management system, you must engage the entire workforce in evaluating risks and building the management system, starting with the biggest risks.  Risks to people, assets, the environment and your company’s reputation can arise from safety hazards, business and financial performance requirements, legal issues, political instability and other hazards.  Use the reporting and review processes to continuously improve.

Even with an inspiring goal, a clear and focused strategy and the key structural support for executing the strategy, the workplace culture can reject the change effort much like the human body rejects a mismatched organ transplant.

In the next article, we will explore how to overcome the natural human resistance to change.