The Risk of Everyday Communication

Ten or so years ago I got a call from a global consulting firm that specializes in risk management. They help clients around the world manage financial risk, cyber security, corporate misconduct, and fraud potential. So why were they calling Ridge? To help manage a risk they observed in their own organization: everyday communication.

I had never thought about communication as a risk in that way (or our training as a risk management strategy). But sometimes communication errors can be catastrophic.

In 1972, an air traffic controller noticed that a plane was losing elevation as it approached Miami International Airport. He radioed the plane and asked, “How are things comin’ along up there?”—not the most effective way phrase the question given the seriousness of the problem. The crew, unaware of any issue with altitude, assumed the message was in reference to a landing gear problem they had just fixed. They radioed back, “OK.” Moments later, the plane hit the ground and 101 people lost their lives.

In 1961 President John Kennedy ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba after he was told by military analysts that it had “a fair chance of success.” Kennedy assumed that “fair chance” meant “good chance.” Years later the author of the report said that, in his mind, a “fair chance” of success meant 3-to-1 against success. Hundreds of lives were lost and it remains what US News and World Report called “one of the worst blunders of any new president.

And then there are the horror stories we’ve all heard about doctors operating on the wrong part of a patient’s body. The Checklist Manifesto, an excellent book by author and surgeon Atul Gwande, is the result of Gwande’s efforts to boost the quality of care while minimizing the risks of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and mistakes made in hospitals around the world.

The errors in these examples are small and easy to make, yet the results were tragic. But it wasn’t these kinds of mega-mistakes the risk management firm wanted to guard against. It’s the small, imperceptible, everyday costs of poor communication they wanted to manage.

In lean manufacturing this kind of expense is called muda—inefficiency and waste that isn’t obvious or measured. Another way of thinking of it is what researchers have called Type II spending. Type I expenses show up on financial statements. Type II expenses, like squandered time or ineffective communication, are unaccounted for. In one study, researchers asked senior executives to estimate the cost of wasted time to their companies. The  average answer: about $15.5 million. The collateral costs of poor communication may be even greater: it damages work relationships and adds to the massive costs related to employee under-engagement. Miscommunication also leads to errors, re-work, and lowers other productivity indicators.

So how do we manage the risks associated with everyday communication? Through a combination of awareness, process, and skill.

Awareness: The easiest way to practice awareness is to check in at the end of your important conversations to make sure all parties are leaving with the same understanding about what was discussed and who’s doing what as a result. This can often be a quick one-minute (or less) review. For longer meetings with many people and topics, it’s smart to have a recorder or secretary take notes and report what decisions and next steps were agreed to. If this seems like a blinding flash of the obvious, it is. But unfortunately knowing isn’t the same as doing.

Process: You can improve your own communication process by having an agenda for each interaction – mental agendas for brief or straight-forward interactions, published agendas for complex and team interactions. What’s the desired outcome? What issues need to be discussed and what decisions/commitments need to be made? What’s the best way to collectively achieve the goal? Again, basic stuff. But as Steven Covey advised, to be successful, “begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.” Applying this principle to your conversations will improve both your results and your key relationships.

Skill: Skill is harder because it takes time to develop. But as the risk management firm discovered, it’s an investment of time and attention that’s worth making.

George Bernard Shaw summarized the risk of everyday communication beautifully when he wrote, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” We assume the best when we should be more skeptical.

This week, take a risk-management approach to communication. Don’t assume your message and meaning has gotten through until you’ve checked it out.

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