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The Importance of the Relationship: Using Checklists to Improve Discussions

The Importance of the Relationship; What are the expectations; and what should be discussed?

The relationship between the Air Traffic Manager (ATM) and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) Facility Representative is one of the most important relationships in determining the environment and the success of a facility in support of the mission of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Building and maintaining strong relationships require accountability. The building blocks of accountability are acceptance, commitment, trust, and transparency. This article intends to further discuss and develop the original premise authored in 2015 about relationships and the impact of expectation management on working relationships in high-stress environments.

Trust and Accountability

While there is only so much time and capacity available to the facility leadership during an average day, each person needs to accept the other’s right to be in their position and exercise their respective responsibilities. There exists the need to commit to each other that they will work together for the good of the facility and the employees with no hidden agendas. If they can build these first two blocks, over time, the resulting product will be trust. When trust is achieved, transparency is possible. If transparency is achieved, each person will willingly give and receive feedback. To ensure the most safe and expeditious Air Traffic Control (ATC) environment possible, there is an ultimate output from the basic trust agreement between parties in leadership – accountability is the ultimate goal. Accountability is achieved when each person can, willingly, be held accountable to the other for the good of the facility and employees (Creutzfeldt, 2016). Trust, transparency and accountability clearly do not develop overnight; it takes time and effort from both parties. Creutzfeldt (2016), a senior lecturer and expert at ombudsman relationships, offers that “voice and trust need to be reinforced at every stage of the customer journey ideally as a joint effort of the actors to provide voice and establish trust” (p. 476). When labor and management are able to trust each other and to be accountable to each other, the result is an environment that is more productive and hospitable for all (Creutzfeldt, 2016).  

Successful Relationships

The apparent and growing trend of consistent pushback to the enforcement of proper rules and regulations are diminished if not eliminated because they are colleagues rather than adversaries who will work together, and effectively communicate to overcome any challenge. Bradley and Campbell (2016) offer that “aspects of supportive communication, especially empathy, equality, and description, were positively and uniquely associated with conversation satisfaction” (p. 460). These qualities of dialogue are especially important when the relationship between the ATM and the NATCA Facility Representative is potentially adversarial with one side representing management and mission, and the other side representing the union workforce. When these relationships are transparent and heathy, it provides an example for the rest of the facility and sets the stage for a highly successful working environment. Good relationships foster good morale, which leads to a better work environment and results in more engaged and highly motivated controllers. Highly motivated and engaged controllers provide a safer and more efficient National Airspace System (NAS). 

Relationship Goals

There is value in defining the specific goals that should be achieved to help ensure a positive and collaborative working relationship in ATC facilities. Also, these goals are not just limited to ATC facilities, as they may be applied to all labor-supported workplace environments. Here are the building blocks he authors believe would create a healthy and long-lasting foundation of relationships and representation: 

  • Acceptance: Acknowledge each other’s right to be in their elected or appointed position. Discuss the importance and responsibilities of the relationship that is about to be formed.
  • Commitment: Commit to each other that you intend to work together, with no hidden agendas, for the good of the facility and employees. Ask for a commitment.
  • Trust: Trust is the natural result of Commitment + Acceptance + time. This is the point where each person realizes each other’s motives are for the good of the facility and those employed there. The issue of confidentiality resides here.
  • Transparency: Transparency is the natural result of Acceptance + Commitment + Trust + time. The normal hindrances to honesty have been removed so each person feels free to give and receive feedback. 
  • Accountability: Accountability is the goal. The relationship has reached a point where each side may speak honestly without the threat of harm to the individual or the group. 

Given these basic building blocks of relationship building, there will exist an opportunity for the facility to be successful. Miltenberger (2013) offers that “nonprofit leaders can take

an active role and begin to cultivate a mind-set that prepares them for an effective collaboration with government [leaders]” (p. 59). Leaders that take a more active role, with the proper foundational mindset of the desire to build a relationship based on trust, equip themselves and the facility to accomplish the mission with a more positive mindset and, consequentially, more successfully. The customers, the flying public, airport stakeholders and the workforce will potentially enjoy the opportunity to be a safer and in a more harmonious environment. Everyone wins with good relationships and most importantly, the clients and customers win too. 

Common Relationship Concerns

Relationships at all levels offer critical milestones that should not be overlooked. Sweers and Desouza (2010) offer that there is high-value to encourage employees at all levels to participate in the relationships (p. 18). Clear, open, and transparent discussions regarding the value of effective and value-added relationships is paramount to relationship success. Based on the foundation of our experiences as both managers and union representatives, we have compiled a primer regarding the common issues, concerns, topics of discussion, and expectations from Labor Relations and ATMs in the form of a checklist.

Relationship Building Checklist

All aspects of aviation are inundated with checklists. Relationship building should be no different since checklists support enhanced safety and offer a proven methodology that can be modified by the users to best fit their specific facility goals. Based on the authors’ experience the following Relationship Building Checklist has been conceived:

Checklist Item 1: Foundational Discussion Topics

What do you think a collaborative relationship should look like? Here is what I think…

How would you describe the overall functioning of our facility? Bad, good?

What are your priorities for this facility? Here are my priorities…

Are there any areas that need improvement that I may not be understanding?

Do you have any ideas/suggestions that could improve our overall functioning?

Checklist Item 2: Setting Expectations

Confidentiality and trust is a necessary given.

We will need to work together to do the best for the workforce and the mission.

Share an understanding as to how our meetings will be conducted.

How will we communicate with each other? Email, in person, telephone, etc.

Any contract in force belongs to both management and the union and will be honored – even if it is inconvenient or difficult.

Agree to resolve issues at the lowest possible level.

Agree to a basic timeline to negotiate.

Checklist Item 3: Information Sharing

Discuss ongoing important issues.

Review local agreements – in writing and past practices.

Confer on vacation schedules, upcoming events, changes to workplace?

Always discuss status of awards, promotions and/or current projects. 

Share a concern for safety in the workplace – Occupational safety, health, and environmental compliance issues.

Discuss current and future collaborative working groups.

Agree to professional and ethical standards.

Schachter, Daniel, and Liu (2017) conclude in their research that checklists are “an instrument to remind negotiators of all the issues that principals should consider in establishing [private-public partnerships] with agents who may not share their entire agenda” (p. 661). Based on the authors’ combined 60-plus years of public service and management, we could not agree more. Just using a simple checklist provides a reminder of the basics – and this checklist is just one example. Checklists are fluid and living documents. They can be changed, modified, and added to dependent on the needs of the facility and special requirements. 

Conclusions and Further Research

Our experiences, with over 60 years of experience in ATC and in federal agencies both in uniform military service and in civilian attire, offers support of the premise that the use of checklists is invaluable to enhance better relationships and clarity of thought (Schachter, et al., 2017). Checklists also foster enhanced focus on the topics and limits personalities involved in the relationship processes, enhancing character in the workplace serving to “indicate a disposition toward considering the needs and interests of others and how one’s own actions affect other people” (Cohen, Panter, Turan, Morse, & Kim, 2014, p. 959). The use of a checklist such as the one suggested here, also serves to include the types of communication suggested to begin transparent conversations, which may be intimidating for some leaders. There may be some leaders that are more comfortable holding on to knowledge, so it may possibly help them maintain control, but secrecy breeds isolation not success. Although knowledge is power, collective power produces better and potentially longer-lasting results. There appears to be the potential to enhance the direct relationship between how much the management, the pilots, controllers, and the union constituency know about the plan/vision and how well the plan/vision plays out. The authors conclude that the use of a checklist offers one simple and transparent methodology to share common goals and find common ground.

The authors also suggest that further research be considered to study the use of checklists specifically in relationship building within facilities where there exists labor unions. The value of doing so is potentially limitless – relationships are built on gaining accountability and forming expectations and by using shared checklists, the parties view the others perspective and trust that they have positive intent. When we build trust, transparency and accountability, we can collaboratively discuss any issue and find common ground.  


Bradley, G. L., & Campbell, A. C. (2016). Managing difficult workplace conversations: Goals, strategies, and outcomes. International Journal of Business Communication, 53(4), 443- 464. doi:10.1177/2329488414525468

Cohen T, Panter A, Turan N, Morse L, & Kim Y. (2014). Moral character in the workplace. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 107(5), 943-963. Retrieved from 52e-37be-4c9b-ba4f-fb84c58409bb%40sessionmgr103

Creutzfeldt, N. (2016). A voice for change? Trust relationships between ombudsmen, individuals and public service providers. Journal of Social Welfare & Family Law, 38(4), 460-479. doi:10.1080/09649069.2016.1239371

Miltenberger, L. (2013). Collaboration, contracting, and contradictions: How nonprofit leaders can begin to think about collaborating with the government. Journal of Leadership Studies, 7(1), 54-60. doi:10.1002/jls.21280

Schachter, H. L., Daniel, J., & Liu, R. (2017). Win-Win agreements and public private infrastructure partnerships: Managerial and governance concerns. Public Administration Quarterly, 41(4), 643-669.

Sweers, N. & Desouza, K. (2010). "Shh! It's vive la résistance …", Journal of Business Strategy, 31(6). 12-21.


Christopher Garcia

Christopher M. Garcia, MSCIT (FAA Retired), is an Assistant Professor at Regis University, Denver, CO. MORE >


Scott Rautio

Scott A. Rautio is a mediator and Air Traffic Manager for Duluth Air Traffic Control Tower/TRACON. MORE >

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