I just finished the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Blink. I was fascinated to read about the safety record of airlines being in direct relationship to the ability of the cockpit crew to communicate effectively, regardless of hierarchy, for them to be able to work as a team.
In our Leadership Succession conference, Dr. Susan Wheelan presented extensive research on the development stages of highly effective teams. It didn’t surprise me to learn that health care and financial services were the two industries with the least effective teams. They are both very hierarchical and rigid boundaries cut off communication. Gladwell’s examples of flights that unbelievably ran out of gas as they circled waiting to land (fuel exhaustion), or crashing into a mountain on the way to the runway, were in both cases avoidable if the pilot had listened to the copilot.
Are we willing to listen to the opinions of those who work for us, who may see things differently than us? Do we immediately assume they are wrong? Does the culture of my organization stimulate a willingness to learn from one another across roles and silos? Does it stimulate people to speak up or to keep quiet? The multiple perspectives that exist are great sources of information!
The safety record of one airline was drastically improved when they undertook a systemic review of obstacles to communication.
Shared language was missing, as the pilots and air traffic controllers were from different countries. But what about one department to another – how often does the engineering department speak the same language as the sales department.
Shared intimacy was another. The copilot was used to bowing to the pilot. That practice was eliminated. They had to start calling each other by their first names, creating a framework for an equal communication in crisis to occur. We teach the importance of balancing intimacy and strategy in any work relationship but I never thought of it in quite these concrete terms.
Just the other night I was on yet another conference call and one of the people kept us from diving right into the agenda the minute we started the call. She said let’s start by everyone checking in. I admit to being a bit frustrated at first as I was already into my twelfth hour of work that day and anxious to get done. Wasting precious time wasn’t on my agenda. Then as I listened to the voices become individual people with interesting lives, I found myself relaxing, and the quality of the rest of the conference call became more pleasant and I believe more productive.
And no one had to bow.