What A Plane Crash Can Teach Us About Communication

Posted on May 9, 2010

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Is your organization prevented from moving forward because of a lack of communication?

The cold January crash in 1982 of the Air Florida plane outside of Washington, D.C. provides a poignant illustration of how the errors of teamwork and communication can have devastating results. On takeoff, the 737 came down directly on top of the 14th JetStreet Bridge, crushing four cars and killing 5 people. Of the 79 people on board, only four passengers and one Flight Attendant were pulled alive from the frigid waters of the Potomac River. These are the horrid facts, but why did this accident happen?

There are very few tragedies that grab our attention like plane crashes. Thankfully, commercial airline crashes are rare occurrences. Yet, when they happen they are unforgettable. “The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication,” writes Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. He continues, “One pilot knows something important and somehow doesn’t tell the other pilot.” This is what happened with the Air Florida crash.

“One pilot knows something important and somehow doesn’t tell the other pilot.”

The primary error Gladwell points out with the Air Florida crash revolves around “mitigated speech,” which “refers to any attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the meaning of what is being said.” Mitigated speech is communication that lacks confidence and authority. Mitigated speech is weak talk. Mitigated speech is talk that hints. Mitigated speech, regardless of the magnitude of the situation, is an attempt to communicate without a sense of urgency. Mitigated speech is deficient in clarity.

Consider these two examples of mitigated speech; One from a mother and the other from a coach.

A mother may say to her toddler, “I would like for you to get out of the car.” This is mitigated speech because the child could understand the statement to be nothing more than a suggestion. Unmitigated speech would be, “Lydia, get out of the car right now!” In the latter statement, the mother’s communication is explicit.

A basketball coach may send in a player with 35 seconds to go in the game. He could say, “Jay, if Reynolds gets the ball it might be a good idea to foul him.” That would be mitigated speech. Jay, could reason he doesn’t want to get charged with a foul and so let Reynolds move up the court unabated. The coach would have a far greater chance of getting his desired results if he was clear in his directive: “Jay, as soon as Reynolds touches that ball foul him and send him to the foul line.”

In the Air Florida crash the First Officer knew that the plane had a dangerous amount of ice on the wings. Four times, the First Officer spoke to the Captain about the danger. Yet, all four times, he used mitigated speech. Listen to the four statements:

“Look how the ice is just hanging on his, ah, back there, see that?”

“See all those icicles on the back there and everything?”

“Boy, this is a, this is a losing battle here on trying to de-ice those things, it [gives] you a false feeling of security, that’s all it does.”

Finally, after being cleared for takeoff, the First Officer gives his fourth statement:

“Let’s check those [wing] tops again, since we’ve been sitting here a while.”

Sadly, the last words the First Officer says before the plane plummets into the river is “Larry, we’re going down, Larry.”

Crashes are far more likely to happen when the captain is in the flying seat.

In researching this accident, and other airline tragedies, Gladwell makes a startling assertion. “Crashes have been far more likely to happen when the captain is in the flying seat.” He continues, “Planes are safer when the least experienced pilot is flying.” Why would he make such a claim? “Because,” he writes, “it means the second pilot isn’t going to be afraid to speak up.” If the roles would have been reversed in the Air Florida cockpit, the Captain wouldn’t have hesitated to demand that the plane stay on the ground. Yet, because of the respect for the Captain’s authority and experience, the First Officer was reluctant to forcefully communicate his concerns. That reluctance cost 79 people their lives.

There are lessons to be learned outside the cockpit.

While they may not get the attention of a plane crash, the errors of teamwork and communication in our teams can have devastating effects on our success as organizations. In organizations, it is critical that co-workers, fellow board members and teammates exhibit mutual respect and trust. Yet, respect and trust cannot lull us into spineless silence or mitigated communication. Rather, the reverse is true. Mature respect and genuine trust opens the door to honest communication. Organizations improve by listening to the ideas and concerns of everyone on the team.

While the results of mitigated speech in one organization may not lead to the loss of lives, the losses can matter. An unwillingness to speak-up could be the difference between a vital employee staying or leaving to work for a competitor. A reluctance to share insight could lead to losing a key client. Sharing an idea via a hint, instead of a confident assertion, could lead to a missed opportunity for growth.

 

The Air Florida crash was a tragic event that led to critical changes in the training of pilots. Today, the First Officer is more likely to leap over mitigated speech and say something more like, “Larry, stop. We can’t fly with this much ice on the wings. Tell the ATC we can’t go.” The lessons have been learned in aviation; may they also be learned in our organizations.

IDEAS FOR TEAM BUILDING DISCUSSION:

  1. Introduce the discussion by asking the question, “If you were to get on a commercial airplane today and were given the option of having the most experienced or the least experienced pilot flying the plane, which would you choose?
  2. Share the story of the Air Florida crash.
  3. Team Leaders share commitment to provide an organizational atmosphere that welcomes innovation and constructive conflict.
  4. To help the team understand “mitigated speech” ask them to share examples—real or imaginary—of mitigated speech outside of the team, (home, among friends, government, sports, etc.).
  5. Ask team members to share examples of when they should have exhibited more boldness and clarity in their communication on the team. Then ask, “Why didn’t you speak up?” “How should you have communicated your message?”
  6. Finally, ask, “For the good of the team and our success as an organization, what
  7. should you communicate now?”

I used this story for a team building exercise in our firm. After purchasing a box of small matchbox-sized planes, we encouraged our staff to present a plane to any co-worker who they observed being bold in their speech for the good of the firm. Within two months one of our team members boldly spoke up, resulting in $60,000 of additional annual revenue.

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