Original Research

A tale of two ships: Follower attributions of leadership with reference to team morale in an air traffic control centre

Lonell Coetzee, Sanchen Henning
South African Journal of Economic and Management Sciences | Vol 22, No 1 | a2109 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajems.v22i1.2109 | © 2019 Lonell Coetzee, Sanchen Henning | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 20 September 2017 | Published: 26 August 2019

About the author(s)

Lonell Coetzee, Air Traffic and Navigational Services S.O.C. Ltd (ATNS), Johannesburg, South Africa
Sanchen Henning, Department of Leadership and Organisational Behaviour, School of Business Leadership, University of South Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa


Background: Air traffic controllers are a unique set of individuals operating in a safety-critical environment requiring interaction with and responsiveness to an elevated load of constantly changing information. The management of such a workforce is often challenging, specifically the maintenance of sufficiently high levels of morale to prevent a high controller turnover and safety related consequences. Low morale poses a latent safety risk to aviation organisations.

Aim: This study demonstrates that discrepancies between leader perceptions of follower attributions and actual follower attributions influence team morale.

Setting: The study was completed in a large operational air traffic control centre, operated by an air navigation service provider company in South Africa. It included four teams of air traffic controllers and their direct managers.

Method: A quantitative design was adopted to collect and analyse quantitative data from a total population of 105 followers and four team leaders. The Leadership Style Inventory was developed to collect data regarding twelve follower attributions ascertained from literature.

Results: Discrepancies between leader perceptions of follower attributions and actual follower attributions were identified in all four teams at the selected air traffic control centre. In each of the teams, leaders over-estimated follower attributions, which negatively affected air traffic controller team morale. The higher the perceived discrepancy between leaders and followers, the lower the team morale. The attributions displaying the highest levels of discrepancies between leaders and followers across all teams were morality, communication and openness while professionalism and encouragement displayed the highest level of matching between leaders and followers.

Conclusion: There is limited published research on leaders’ perceptions of follower attributions and the actual follower attributions - as well as the effect of this discrepancy on team morale in air traffic control centres. This study provides a tangible way for air traffic control managers to navigate the risk of low morale by ascertaining their attributional developmental areas from a follower perspective. To assist in preventing latent system failures from leading to aviation incidents, the human factor as expressed in this study should considered by navigation service providers.


Followership; attribution theory; air traffic control; morale; safety; leadership.


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