NASA’s top officials said Tuesday that managers unwilling to embrace culture change and candid talk from their employees will be moved aside in the post-Columbia space agency — and out of the system.
“That’s part of being accountable as leaders, and that’s one of the things that has been missing,” said James Jennings, a deputy associate administrator.
Jennings said NASA’s leadership will undergo one-on-one intervention by behavioral science experts, with a special focus at the middle-management level “where communication, things just stop.”
“We have to work with that mid-management level to get them to embrace the changes that we want to make and if at the end of the day, if we can’t change the people, then we’ve got to change the people,” he said.
Jennings and NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe met with reporters a day after the space agency released the results of a survey that showed many space agency employees feel unappreciated and are still afraid to speak up about safety concerns, more than a year after the Columbia disaster.
O’Keefe said part of the problem involves human nature: Most people are reluctant to express dissenting views in a large group. There’s also a NASA mind-set that says, “We’ve got things to do, we’ve got to get on with this, we don’t have time to listen to everybody moan and groan about every issue out there.”
That very attitude contributed to the destruction of Columbia and the deaths of its seven astronauts on Feb. 1, 2003.
Fear of being rendered ineffective
Astronaut James Wetherbee said workers are not afraid of being fired if they speak out.
“They’re afraid of becoming rendered ineffective and being moved to a different job, which for somebody at NASA is equivalent to being fired,” said Wetherbee, who is trying to change that sentiment. “If I’m somebody who’s always slowing down the process, always speaking up, then I don’t get listened to anymore.”
The pressure to keep silent sometimes comes from peers, not just managers, Wetherbee noted.
Wetherbee said an environment needs to be created where a launch delay is viewed as a sign of a good safety culture, and that will mean ignoring media commentaries “about how NASA failed again” when a liftoff is called off.
The fact that only 45 percent of NASA’s 18,000 employees took part in the voluntary survey earlier this year by Behavioral Science Technology Inc. of Ojai, Calif., shows that many workers are indeed fearful, Jennings said.
Jennings said some employees believed — wrongly — that if they filled out the survey and sent it in via the computer, they would be identified. Some asked for a hard copy to mail in so it could not be traced.
The survey company is proposing a three-year plan for culture change, and O’Keefe promises to give it his best shot.
“The leadership’s got to take it on, starting with me,” O’Keefe said.