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Human Factors


It's December 28, 1978, in New York City. United Airlines Flight 173 has just taken off for Portland, Oregon. Unknown to the passengers, a warning light has come on stealing the Captain's attention. Not long after, the Co-Pilot realizes they won't have enough fuel to reach their intended destination and will need to land at a different airport. With his mind focused on the warning light, the Captain is unable to focus on what is really important. They're going to run out of gas.

The plane crashed killing 10 people.

This was a watershed moment for United Airlines as the plane was found to be totally operational but the crew was not. How the team interacted was a major factor. Human factors were the causal factor.

What happens when we have a bad day?

When a pilot has a bad day lives are at risk. For most of the rest of us, the stakes aren't quite as high. There are similarities though. In our daily lives, "warning lights" steal our attention. They can cause our inability to focus on what's important. They also affect how we interact with others.

Self Check-In

Our first responsibility is to determine how "fit" we are for work. While we are pursuing a career, our personal lives are always going on in the background. "Warning lights" are inevitable. When they come on we must feel safe to share the circumstance with others. We must be willing to remove our superhero capes and be vulnerable to take social risks with those we work with. With our capes off deeper collaboration can happen. No matter the metaphor, Psychological Safety is what we're after.

How does the team work together?

While the individuals on any team may not be functioning at their most optimal 100%, collectively the team can still achieve excellence. Together we can cover everyone's blind spots so the team functions effectively. Everyone's input is honored. Everyone feels valued. Everyone can work together with respect to everything life throws at us.

If someone on our team is suffering so much they can't perform, we need to help them get the care they need. Ask these:

  • What's right for them?
  • What's right for their family?
  • What's right for our team?
  • What's right for our organization?

Timely care for team members is paramount so they can return to the work they love fit and healthy. This also supports the personal and team resilience needed for impactful teamwork.

High Performance

High performance happens in only one space...the present moment. It's the ability to think about what we're thinking about so we can think about what we need to do; meta-cognition.

Before and during combat, Navy Seals breath. To get their head in the game they use "box breathing".

  • Breath in for 4 counts
  • Hold for 4 counts
  • Exhale for 4 counts
  • Rest for 4 counts

When you're holding your breath it forces focus on the next breath and nothing else. You get in the moment.

The work you do with your team is likely not as sophisticated as flying a plane. Checking in with one another every day so you can achieve excellence together seems just as important.

"If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together."
-African Proverb

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The Extension Foundation was formed in 2006 by Extension Directors and Administrators. Today, the Foundation partners with Cooperative Extension through liaison roles and a formal plan of work with the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) to increase system capacity while providing programmatic services, and helping Extension programs scale and investigate new methods and models for implementing programs. The Foundation provides professional development to Cooperative Extension professionals and offers exclusive services to its members. In 2020 and 2021, the Extension Foundation has awarded 85% of its direct funding back to the Cooperative Extension System, 100% of funds are used to support Cooperative Extension initiatives. 

This technology is supported in part by New Technologies for Ag Extension (funding opportunity no. USDA-NIFA-OP-010186), grant no. 2023-41595-41325 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Extension Foundation. For more information, please visit You can view the terms of useat

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