Business Perspectives

Miscommunication can be costly in business

Nate Regier
Nate Regier Courtesy photo

On Jan. 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 was due to travel from Washington National Airport in Virginia to Hollywood International Airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with a layover in Tampa.

Conditions were snowy, and the aircraft had been de-iced improperly. Neither did it have its engine anti-icing system activated. This caused instruments to freeze and fail to register the correct readings. So, while the cabin crew thought that they had throttled up sufficiently for take-off, they did not actually have enough power.

The Boeing 737’s run-up took almost half a mile longer than it should have. Even as they set off down the runway, the first officer noticed that something was wrong with the plane’s instruments and that it wasn’t capable of getting airborne. However, his attempts to communicate this were brushed off by the captain, who ordered the take-off to continue.

The plane crashed into the 14th Street Bridge, killing 78 people, including four motorists. Later, reports showed that there was sufficient space for the aircraft’s take-off to have been aborted – if only the flight crew had been communicating better.

Communication problems may not cause fatalities in your organization. But I bet it costs you in time, money, morale, turnover, and productivity. How much? And what can you do about it?

Drama causes miscommunication, and miscommunication causes drama. Drama happens when people play predictable roles motivated by self-justification instead of pursuing effective problem-solving.

In the example above, one pilot played the role of the Persecutor, falsely believing he was right and the other pilot was wrong. Unwilling to listen or consider another point of view, he, like any Persecutor leader, created an environment that was emotionally unsafe.

The other pilot, playing the role of the Victim, lacked assertiveness and didn’t act strongly enough on his better judgment. By compromising on something this critical, he contributed to the disaster.

The Persecutor-Victim dynamic is common in business and contributes to countless small disasters everyday: playing it safe, avoiding conflict, keeping good ideas secret, unhealthy competition, and blaming.

If you play the Persecutor role, the most important skill to develop is empathy – the ability to listen openly and understand another’s point of view. By doing this, you support an environment of emotional safety where people will bring their best selves to the table. The result is better solutions, more innovation, and enhanced teamwork.

If you play the Victim role, the most important skill to develop is assertiveness. By asking for what you want and articulating your needs and boundaries you will earn others’ respect and increase your own self-confidence. The result is less fear and more courage to be your best self.

Every day our clients gain awareness into their drama behaviors and make positive changes. For example, a manager in one of our trainings chose not to play the victim role with her supervisor and experienced a positive result. She was facing a conflict where she was supposed to deliver a proposal to a client and it conflicted with her son’s last baseball game of the season.

Previously, this manager would have been tentative, beating around the bush and attempting to get someone to cover for her without directly asking for what she wanted. She may have even kept it to herself and done nothing. Her fear was that her boss would be mad and there would be negative consequences. As a result, she had missed several significant family events and felt badly about her role as a mother.

This time she called her boss and said, “I would really like to attend my son’s last baseball game. Would you be willing to cover for me? I have prepared the brief and everything is ready for the meeting. I know you can do a great job.”

Her boss willingly accepted the request and wished her a great ballgame.

Does it always go this well? No. The point is, by getting out of the Victim-Persecutor roles, we open up possibilities for new relationships, new solutions, and a new way of doing business.

Nate Regier, Ph.D., is a founding owner of Next Element Consulting, a leadership development and communication training firm in Newton. He is co-author of “Beyond Drama: Transcending Energy Vampires.” Reach him at nate@next-element.com or 316-772-6174, or go to www.next-element.com.

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