Social Interaction Matters – Leading by example

February 04, 2021
1 Master doing Messmans job 2
The captain of one of our SIM Project trial vessels helping to prepare a New Year’s Eve meal in the galley for her crew

Creating an environment on board which makes the crew feel comfortable enough and motivated to socialise is fundamental, and the influence of senior officers can have a significant impact.

During Phase One of ISWAN’s Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project, we asked over 900 seafarers and other maritime stakeholders to select which drivers helped them to socialise on board. The most popular answer, chosen by over a third of survey participants, was strong leadership, i.e. an onboard culture established by senior officers which encouraged social interaction.

The hierarchical nature of the Merchant Navy means that the ship’s environment is strongly influenced by the behaviour and actions of the captain and other senior officers. When interviewed, one respondent said of his captain:

‘ was all his leadership. As soon as he left we had a completely different [Master]...and the whole atmosphere died overnight. It went down the gangway’

This means that senior officers’ engagement in, or sanction of, activities on board is crucial. Leading by example can promote a more relaxed and trusting environment on board. We are seeing examples of positive leadership in Phase Two of the SIM Project, currently underway, in which we are working with a number of vessels trialling social engagement initiatives on board. The captain of one vessel helped to prepare a New Year’s Eve meal in the galley for her crew (pictured), and captains of other vessels have joined in onboard basketball tournaments and other activities. This strong leadership also creates positive role models for junior officers, helping them to pass good practice to the next generation of seafarers.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an extreme example of how vital crew cohesiveness can be. One interviewee in our Phase One research described how leadership is about more than just hierarchy:

‘…in my 5 months on board we had an amazing crew, and our management handled the situation brilliantly, they were encouraging, and they were setting out games, and they were informing their crew. Every night the Captain would go down for dinner and he would just say a few words about how the situation … So, there was a constant flow of information, and people, they felt included. … when you have a situation like this, it is the management’s job to keep their humour up and make some effort…’

Clear communication and the ability to motivate crew are skills a good leader needs to encourage social interaction on board their vessel, as well as an understanding of the factors affecting how crew interact with each other and an appreciation of the benefits of inclusivity (and the damaging effects of exclusion). Training is key but dedicated leadership training, particularly on ‘soft skills’, is largely missing within the Merchant Navy, so this may be an important consideration for the future.

Find out more about ISWAN's SIM Project and download the Phase One report released in January 2021 here.

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