Picture: 123RF/olegdudko
Picture: 123RF/olegdudko

It’s said that sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you. That’s not entirely true. Miscommunication can actually kill you.

In 1977, 583 people died on the island of Tenerife when a KLM Boeing 747 crashed into a Pan Am 747 on the runway.

It was foggy. The Pan Am jumbo was ahead of the KLM flight, but the KLM captain thought the control tower had cleared him for take-off so he surged down the runway to do that and hit the Pan Am aircraft in the middle.

It was a matter of communication, or, in this case, miscommunication.

E-mail is my pet peeve. For many people, the physical act of hitting “Send” implies that the message has been received and comprehended, and will be acted upon. It’s probably one of the worst enablers of failure-orientated management: a toxic combination of box ticking and passive-aggressive compliance by jobsworths.

Often the e-mail is badly worded, yet sent with the belief that the message will be fully understood without the necessary context or technical comprehension.

That’s a dangerous assumption. As clinical psychologist and executive coach Mark Feitelberg warns: “In the absence of information, fantasy reigns.”

But what about other forms of communication? What about ill-communicated strategies? Imagine explaining your company’s turnaround strategy to your 50 top executives, each of whom leaves with a different interpretation. The only guarantee is that your company will crash — spectacularly.

So, in a country with 11 official languages, at least as many conflicting cultures and a past defined by division and downright distrust, how do we communicate to be understood?

There’s an acronym, ViSUU, which stands for visual, shared, understood, used.

It starts from the premise that information should be visual, because then we all see it the same. It’s a fantastic way to simplify complex concepts, which can then be refined by words.

All too often, though, we dive straight in with words, ask if everyone understands and then send them away. Because the core concept hasn’t been cemented, who knows how many different interpretations leave the room to further morph through individual fantasies of comprehension?

Visual communication minimises this, using diagrams and pictures to show consequences and causality up front.

The second part of effective communication is ensuring it’s shared as widely as possible, whether through notice boards or e-mails. You need to create a framework of understanding, on which you build when you meet. Then you have to make sure it’s understood, to verify that the information you intended to convey has indeed been conveyed and comprehended. Don’t imagine people understand something because you told them once — that’s a classic error of hubris.

But what if no-one acts on the information? That would render meaningless everything that has gone before. Make it happen.

But here’s the bottom line: who’s responsible for all this? You are. If it’s your message, the onus is on you to ensure the information you are conveying is comprehensible, shared, comprehended and acted on. If you fail to achieve the first three, you can’t enforce number four. Then you’re as bad as those corporate dullards who turn to you in a meeting and say: “But I sent you an e-mail.”

Years ago I worked at outdoor education organisation Outward Bound, taking executives into the wilds of the English Lake District, where they could hone their leadership and decision-making skills in inhospitable environments. Each syndicate in the group would be allocated a benign, painfully helpful fellow called Tom. A syndicate member would invariably ask Tom to take the Land Rover down to the lake and park it. Tom would do just that — parking it in the lake.

The syndicate members would be aghast at his stupidity, but Tom was doing his job. His name stood for Totally Obedient Moron and his job was to teach those executives not to believe they’d communicated just because they’d said something they understood in their own minds.

So you can’t send an e-mail and then say: “It’s your fault, you didn’t read it”, because the responsibility for understanding lies with the communicator, not the recipient. If you send it but don’t check it’s both received and understood, you’re the one at fault. You must positively check, positively confirm.

Finally, none of this matters unless it is used. Some of us get a dopamine rush sometimes from just standing around a problem and being able to understand and articulate it. But we have to commit to the uncertain path of actions. This is what truly matters.

So make your communication visual, shared, understood and used. Do that, and there’ll be less buck-passing and more accountability. Since you won’t be ticking boxes, no-one else will be able to either.

Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.

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