How to Improve Team Dynamics Among Crew on Board

5 May 2021 By Sara Ventiera
How to Improve Team Dynamics Among Crew on Board

Sara Ventiera is a contributing writer and former stewardess who covers food, travel, and other topics. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times, Food & Wine, NPR, Eating Well, and BBC Travel.

Being an effective leader is essential for crew cohesion and can prevent dire consequences. 

Tiffany Swannack had some bad luck in her first few years of yachting. On her first vessel, a 40-meter, there was an awkward dynamic with the chief stew dating the captain, who was emotionally abusive toward her. She, in turn, took her frustrations out on the stews by not giving direction and expecting Swannack, who was totally green, to just know what to do, then get upset at the result. “We’d try and do things, and it was wrong,” says Swannack. “I kind of learned from her how not to be.”

Five years later and some steps up the chain of command to second stew, Swannack wanted to learn to be a better leader than she’d experienced in the early stages of her yachting career. About six months ago, she enrolled in the leadership accelerator course with The Crew Coach.

Toxic Workplaces

From hospitality and media to sports and public transportation, accusations of toxic workplace cultures have been roiling nearly every industry through 2020. Organizations around the globe are now being forced to examine the customs and values that have filtered down from the top — and completely overhaul methods of leadership. As the rest of the working world is changing to create healthier work environments through more effective leadership, an increasing number of yacht crew have been seeking to improve their leadership skills too.

Courtesy of bluewater

During her first years in the industry, Swannack kept finding herself on boats with a cantankerous crew who didn’t work together as a team unit. “[That’s] all I ever wanted,” she says.

Now the second stew/relief chief on a 63-meter private and charter yacht, Swannack has finally found that cohesive environment she craved with a fair and consistent department head who will patiently answer any questions Swannack or anyone else asks.

Swannack has certainly learned a lot from her current chief stew, but her individual coaching has drastically improved her self-confidence as well as her ability to give feedback and motivate her juniors. She really felt the difference in herself during the height of the COVID-19 when she and her other crewmembers were forced to quarantine on board for two entire months. Swannack, who was the acting chief stew at the time, found herself anxiously staring at the shore through the portholes, desperately wanting to get off the boat for a walk or a run. “Everyone was itching to get off,” she says. “I wasn’t even self-motivated.”

In a session with the Crew Coach Karine Rayson, they decided to schedule team building and training exercises every Friday as a distraction and a reward. Throughout the week, the team would discuss what it was they wanted to learn or workshop. One week, they would go over table settings. The next, it would be a values workshop. “It helped to be able to give them acknowledgement for work they were doing and give them something exciting and different,” Swannack says.

Maritime Management Training

When the International Maritime Organization (IMO) modified the STCW Convention in 2010, management training became a requirement for all officers of the watch, chief engineers, captains and for interior crew who are following the GUEST Program. Every flag state chose a different way of implementing the training. The British Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) introduced two dedicated human element leadership and management (HELM) courses for higher-level certifications. “It was probably the biggest change for maritime training and seafarers that there has been for a very long time — and long overdue,” says John Wyborn, director of crew and training division at bluewater Yachting.

The MCA and U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) introduced two dedicated courses for higher-level certifications that slightly vary from one another. Maritime Professional Training (MPT) in Fort Lauderdale combines the upper-level management course for captains and chief engineers together with five days of leadership and managerial skills as well as case studies. The lower-level course for officers of the watch differs quite drastically between the two agencies, with the USCG requiring just one day and MCA calling for three. “HELM Operational goes into a little more depth about specific case studies and how human error has caused marine accidents,” says John Flanagan, Vice Principal of MPT. “U.S. Coast guard explains your part of the team, where you fall within ranks and expected leadership roles.”

At bluewater, the MCA’s HELM course takes three days to cover how teams are formed, whether deliberately or by accident, through psychologist Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development. Also known as the forming–storming–norming–performing model, these individual stages start at the moment a team first meets (forming), begins to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses (storming), finds a flow and understanding together (norming) and finally gets to the point where the role of the leader almost disappears because everything is handled so seamlessly (performing). The idea is that by understanding these dynamics, leaders can push the process further along at a faster pace while creating a positive team environment.

Wyborn looks back on his own career to understand the process. When he first joined M/Y Golden Odyssey in 1999, he and his crew were just working out how to clean the vessel — and the annoyingly hard-to-reach bulwark on the side — as M/Y Jamaica Bay pulled into the neighboring berth. Right after tying the lines, the deck crew swarmed all over the yacht. In what seemed like minutes, the entire thing was clean. “They looked so seamless,” Wyborn says of the real-life example of “performing.”

One part of the five-day management course examines different kinds of maritime accidents through investigation reports and asks participants to draw out the human elements of the event to figure out how said accident could have been prevented through more effective leadership and teamwork.

Courtesy of bluewater

Different schools have different methods of teaching from simple PowerPoint presentations to an outward bound-type course in Wales. Bluewater uses a combination of video, audio, and kinesthetic exercises to reach different styles of learners in its HELM courses. The operational course includes experiential learning kits that require brand-new teams to complete a task together, say build a robot or another gadget as a group to explore the various issues and diverse personalities that come together, and how they affect the team’s ability to cooperate.

Those exercises are more complicated at the management level. In one game called “the frame,” the manager of the team is given some sort of object that needs to be replicated. Sort of like a play on the childhood game “telephone,” he or she has to verbally describe the object without any sort other visual aides to an emissary. That emissary, who is allowed to take notes, then has to relay those oral instructions from the manager to explain to the workers how to construct the object.

At the end of these exercises, the teams must debrief to explore what worked, what didn’t, and how they could improve. “Sometimes people get embarrassed if they have a spectacular failure,” says Wyborn. “From the facilitator’s point of view, it’s brilliant when they screw up. You’re always trying to look at the things that made a difference and trying to apply that back to things on board.”

Both courses also cover how and why it’s important to create a blame-free culture on board — especially when it comes to accidents. Students interview one another and have a larger discussion on instances where they’ve been blamed for doing something they didn’t think was fair. Often, someone in the class had experienced a major yacht fire or some other catastrophe. The class uses the context of that person’s perspective to understand what happened and how the situation could have been avoided.

Courtesy of bluewater

Reporting Incidences

Rather than reprimand crew who make an honest mistake or error in judgment, an effective leader will look at incidents that could have led to an accident and use it as an opportunity for education.

British Columbia Ferries instituted an incident reporting process called “A.L.E.R.T” (All Learning Events Reported Today) in which employees document all their near-misses. Because employees trust that the company is not going to reprimand them for making a mistake, the policy has generated thousands of documented learning opportunities. Several years in, serious injuries had been reduced by two-thirds and have been continually decreasing.

“The concept of blame-free culture is strange and alien to a lot of guys,” says Wyborn. “Aviation has had it for 35 years, but it’s new in maritime and newer in yachting. You won’t prevent an accident unless you really understand what happened. In the context of the maritime industry, it’s about safety.” Numerous studies back up the concept. One paper released earlier this year looked at data collected from focus group discussions and individual interviews with 41 experienced shipboard leaders from various maritime sectors. Researchers concluded, “The more relationship-oriented the leaders are, the more effective their safety leadership would be in influencing safety behaviors.”

The overall idea the instructors at bluewater, MPT, and other schools attempt to imprint into HELM students is that effective management creates an environment and culture of learning instead of punishment and blame. But each one has a different way of presenting the lessons. When seeking a course, Wyborn suggests asking some questions before signing up. How much practical training is incorporated into the course? Sometimes there’s none. What is the background of the person delivering it? It’s hard to teach management well if the instructor has never worked in senior management in some organization. Also, is it MCA-approved?

These certificates certainly matter for climbing the ranks and broadening knowledge and skills; however, learning to lead effectively has plenty of benefits that outweigh the certifications for many folks.

Safety Repercussions

Leading well can prevent dire consequences that go far beyond operational accidents. It’s no secret that mental health issues affect the yachting industry. Nearly every crewmember has come into contact with a colleague suffering from drug or alcohol addiction. Depression and loneliness run rampant. The industry has dealt with a number of suicides.

These issues are easier to spot with proper leadership and support. Karen Passman, founder of Impact Crew, advises her clients to set up monthly meetings with individual team members to review performance, offer feedback, and listen to concerns.

Ideally, these conversations will foster a safe environment for the crew to be open about any issues they’re facing on board. But they also help department heads gauge how everyone is doing physically and emotionally. “I’m not saying every captain or senior crewmember has to be a counselor,” Passman says. “It’s about picking up on signs and symptoms and knowing at what time to refer them to professional support.”

That ability to listen and empathize, which are hallmarks of a great leader, come naturally to some people. For others, they do not. But they are behaviors that can be learned.

Just as individual crewmembers need that kind of support, most managers benefit from a solid foundation in leadership to lean on — that takes more than a one-time, three- or five-day course.

“In the corporate world, people might come back in a couple of years and pick up tips they didn’t use or remember from last time,” says Passman. “When you’re talking about changing habits or bringing in new habits, there’s only so much you can work on after a leadership training course.”

Courtesy of The Crew Coach

That’s why Passman and other yachting leadership experts, like Crew-Glue and the Crew Coach, offer bespoke leadership and team development as well as one-on-one coaching. “By regularly touching base, you can support their development in the specific areas they need to grow in,” says Passman.

The Crew Coach’s Advanced Leadership Program usually takes about three months to complete. The idea is that students learn about their own behavior and how to improve, apply those lessons on board, and come back to process results. “You can’t change behavior overnight,” says Karine Rayson, The Crew Coach. “That’s why it takes so long.”

Some of the most common characteristics of great leaders are essentially the antithesis of what many would assume. Vulnerability, humility, and the ability to listen and put oneself in another’s shoes are the traits that are best able to motivate others — not the top down form of management that is ingrained in many industries. “When you think about the egotistic leader and someone who is humble, who are you going to respect and admire?” asks Rayson.

Slowly but surely, yacht crew are trying to learn the fundamentals of positive leadership before they step into management positions. When Sous Chef Jane Smith (name changed due to onboard confidentiality agreements) transitioned to yachting from a land-based company that valued staff members and celebrated their achievements, she felt frustrated by department heads who were often stuck in their ways and would demand respect rather than gain it.

Smith wants to move up the ranks, eventually to chief stew, and she wants to build a culture that is uplifting by motivating crew and leading with purpose, as she experienced with her land-based employer. So, she signed up for one-on-one training with the Crew Coach.

Already, she feels more confident, self-aware, and better able to deal with conflict in spite of the high pressure inherent in yachting. “I think everyone can benefit from coaching,” she says. “I’m really glad I decided to do it.”

This feature is taken from the November 2020 issue of Dockwalk.


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