The “other side” of Autopilot . . .

I’ve been on autopilot too long.  -Ken Campbell

As I mentioned in a previous posting, the Autopilot is an important element of safe long distance air transportation.  In the human being, the ability to be on autopilot while performing repetitive and often mundane activities can free up the conscious part of the mind (as opposed to the subconscious where our “human autopilot” resides) to think about issues, ideas and problems.  For example, I am pretty much on autopilot as I type this blog posting.  I don’t have to consciously think about which finger to press to get the letter I want.  Typing is one of those autopilot skills that works in the background while I think about what I want to say next. Pretty cool!

The process of getting to the point of being able to operate a word processor, or other pieces of equipment on autopilot usually has four steps.  Let me illustrate with how I learned to drive a car and then let me explain why being on “autopilot” definitely has its disadvantages, especially when it comes to dealing with other human beings!

My father taught me to drive when I was 16 in a standard transmission Chevy Station Wagon, a Bel Air model as I recall, vintage late 1950’s.  To learn to be an effective driver, pass my driving test, and drive safely through life I had to take my learning in steps.  The 4 steps are:

  1. Unconscious – Incompetent: (Novice)
  2. Conscious – Incompetent:   (Learner)
  3. Conscious – Competent:   (Capable)
  4. Unconscious – Competent:   (Autopilot)
My dad took me out to an empty country road and put me behind the wheel.  I was definitely an Unconscious – Incompetent.  I didn’t understand the relationship between the brake, gas pedal and clutch and I definitely couldn’t drive more than 10 feet without stalling.  After some explaining and a few questions I moved up to a Conscious – Incompetent.  I could tell you all about how everything worked but I still couldn’t drive.

With a few days of practice I graduated to Conscious – Competent.  I could drive down the country road, actually staying out of the ditch, but I really had to concentrate hard and pay attention.  Well, I eventually passed my driving exam and have been driving all sorts of vehicles for the past 45 years, safely, mostly without giving the process of driving much conscious thought.

So far, sounds like Autopilot is a pretty good thing.  But here’s how it became a real liability.

One of my first assignments as a junior consultant required me to fly to the client city and rent a car.  Being new to all this I arrived a few minutes late at the client headquarters building.  With my conscious mind on the upcoming meeting I parked the car, turned off the ignition, and tried to pull the key out.  It was “stuck”.  I tried everything but it wouldn’t come out.  So in desperation and not wanting to be any later I took a piece of newspaper from my briefcase and lay it over the steering column, hiding the key in the ignition, then went to my meeting.

After the meeting my mind was focused on the “problem key” and I quickly discovered a small button on the bottom of the steering column, a key release button.  My old car didn’t have such a feature and in my state of autopilot I was treating this car like it was my car.

The same negative aspect of autopilot applies to our human interactions.  If we deal with people while we are on autopilot, just going through the conversation or thinking about what we are going to say next, it is easy to miss the “communication clues” people give off.  The non-verbal signals, the tone of voice, the unstated statements.  When you are on autopilot, especially at home, it is easy to only “half listen” to your spouse, partner or children.  When half-listening becomes your standard operating procedure, relationships suffer.

Remember to switch off Autopilot with people and become a Conscious – Competent communicator.  You will have far better relationships at work and at home.

Tight Lines . . .

John R Childress

E |      T | +44 207 584 3774      M | +44 7833 493 999

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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