Leadership lessons from above.

Read Time: 1 minute

Adam Loong | January 19th, 2022


Valuable communication techniques that improve leadership

High consequence communications take place thousands of times per minute, every day in the skies above us. These conversations are occurring between aircraft pilots and air traffic control (ATC) and are often the primary means of ensuring two aircraft don’t hit each other in the sky, pretty ‘high consequence’ wouldn’t you say?

A minor misinterpretation of a conversation by either party can have disastrous effects. Therefore, strict protocols have been implemented to minimise the opportunity for this to occur.

An even greater number of communications are taking place every day in our workplaces. Whilst the consequence of misinterpretation may not be as high as that experienced in the skies above us, significant issues can and do arise. A simple misunderstanding of instructions can result in any number of negative outcomes for a team or business as I’m sure, most reading this can attest to.

As a solution, we can look to our sisters and brothers of the sky. How do pilots and ATC communicate with each other to minimise the chance of misunderstanding? The answer: readbacks.

A readback is required by pilots following certain instructions provided by ATC. As an example:

ATC: “Alpha Bravo Charlie, Track to Newcastle, maintain 8,000 feet”

Pilot: “Track to Newcastle, maintain 8,000, Alpha Bravo Charlie”

This incredibly simple technique ensures clarity between both parties and confirms that the instructions have been communicated clearly.

This easy practice carries an even greater punch when utilised in the workplace. When a leader requests a readback of instructions, not only do they ensure that their intended message has been understood, but they also learn valuable lessons about their own communication methods. Often, when a leader listens to their own instructions read back to them in a different voice, they realise that they didn’t emphasise certain points or they overly complicated the guidance. On some occasions, the leader will be faced with the realisation that the directions that they provided will lead to a negative outcome – it’s better to work this out at the start than at the finish though!

When a leader requests a readback of instructions from an employee, it must be handled in a humble, self-deprecating manner. A readback is not a test of understanding but rather it is a test of how well a leader is communicating. Any misunderstandings that are uncovered during a readback are most likely the result of poor communication from the leader and therefore an excellent opportunity to practice continuous improvement.

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