What Project Teams Can Learn About Communication from Aviation (1 of 3)

Many of today’s project teams are in need of a fresh perspective on enhancing communication. Despite a myriad amount of articles, blog posts, books, and other content, people still struggle with poor communication and the resulting negative effects on our projects and teams.

One of the ways to obtain a fresh perspective is to learn from other disciplines. Aviation is one such discipline. Aviation studies have found that poor communication is responsible for 80% of aviation accidents and incidents (according to the NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS)). For example, a major disaster in 1977 at Tenerife in Spain was caused almost exclusively by poor communication: two airplanes were on the same runway following vague instructions, and a co-pilot did not communicate his concerns over his captain’s actions. This and similar incidents resulted in more comprehensive studies of human communication and the establishment of subsequent training to improve it. The result is what aviation terms crew resource management training which has improved communication, reduced incidents, and provided us with lessons on enhancing communication that we can use in both the project management discipline and our project teams.

What is poor communication?

Poor communication does not simply mean we communicate something incorrectly. There are three different types of poor communication:

  • Incorrect communication: something we communicated that was simply not correct.
  • Absence of communication: nothing was communicated when it should have been.
  • Correct but late communication: something was communicated, but too late.

The first thing we need to learn is that all of these types of poor communication must be addressed in our teams, not just the reality of incorrect communication.

What are the human factors that cause poor communication?

We also learn that there are specific human factors found to contribute to poor communication that go beyond “not communicating clearly ” or “not listening well. ” These factors include:

  • Authority gradients
  • Expectations
  • Culture differences
  • High workloads
  • Pressure
  • Burnout and fatigue
  • Distractions and interruptions

Authority gradient simply refers to how far apart people are in terms of their authority in the organization. For example, an engineer is going to be more likely to withhold communication when the recipient is a director vs. when the recipient is a colleague. The US Navy found that most aviation incidents occurred when flight crew members were two or more military ranks apart.

Our expectations tend to give us a bias which directly affects how we perceive information that is communicated to us. We tend to hear what we expected or wanted to hear without asking the questions to properly confirm or contradict our expectation and resulting bias.

Culture differences can play a role and need to be understood in today’s environment of virtual teams. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses how culture plays a significant role in the interaction of flight crews from certain cultures where questioning authority and deferring communication to higher “ranking ” individuals is the norm. This is important to know if your team crosses cultural boundaries.

High workloads and pressure can also cause poor communication. The healthcare industry has found that when nurses have heavy workloads, they may reduce their communication with physicians and providers, and nurse-patient communication may suffer. Pilots have been known to miss important radio communications during periods of high workload. Most of us have experienced periods of high workload and know what that can do to our communication output and accuracy.

Some of the more obvious causal factors include burnout, fatigue, distractions, and interruptions. The bottom line is that there are many things that are waiting to dissuade us, distract us, and rob us of the time and energy it takes to properly communicate. It is important to recognize these factors.

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Mark Kenny

Mark Kenny is a project management practitioner, business owner, and aviation enthusiast. Mr. Kenny has spent over 16 years working in various capacities in the project management field. He has studied and written on lessons learned in other team disciplines, such as aviation cockpits. Mr. Kenny is currently the President of Hippo Solutions which helps make project management teams better. His team at home includes his wife and four children.