Several years ago I was on a plane and talking to the man and his family sitting beside me. They were the typical American family: suburban, two incomes, young children, and in need of a break. They were heading west on vacation and everyone was very excited about the opportunity to escape work, see something new, and have some time together away from home. Before the plane took off, the two young children were very excited. They told me all about the trip, drank several water bottles, and alternated back and forth at the window. As the plane prepared for take-off, the children started transforming from pure excitement to wide eye nervousness. The anxiety rose as the flight attendant covered the safety message that we are all so familiar with from flying. When the flight attendant reached the part about “in the case of a water landing, a life vest is stored under your seat” the kids blanched like they had been corrected by a parent. Both kids stared at the sign on the back of the seat in front of them for a few minutes before they started to rub their rear ends. The mother asked them to stop and both kids looked at their mother like all the ice cream in the world fell off every cone at the same time.
The father finally asked what happened to their bottoms and why are they rubbing them so much. One child looked up and said, “Dad, I don’t think mine is big enough to float” and pointed to the sign on the back of the seat which reads “Use bottom cushion for floatation.”
It is easy to send the wrong message and receive the wrong message. The flight safety message occurs in the workplace on a regular basis. How often have you conducted a meeting that every employee at the meeting heard something different? How many times have you met with an employee one-on-one to only find out that the message completely missed its mark? There are three big lessons we can apply from typical safety message:
- People do not always listened
- Crashing negates the message
- We all understand in different ways
People Do Not Always Listen
In the last year, I have noticed that flight attendants spend more time asking people to listen then before. About forty percent of the time, there will even be a statement about “stop what you are doing and please follow along with the overview.” The displease teacher approach does not seem to be working at least in my experience. Most people are reading, dealing with kids, sleeping, or talking to their neighbor and rarely acknowledge that the message is in progress. The workplace is no different. Meetings and especially large meetings are fertile ground for employees catching up with coworkers, checking their fantasy sport pool, and gossip. If the message is critical, you have to be more creative. One of the most successful flight safety messages I have seen is when the attendant adds humor or a few strange comments to the routine. People perk up and follow closely waiting for the next laugh or quirk.
Crashing Negates the Message
I am friends with a past airline employee that worked in airline safety for years. If the mood catches him, he is quick to talk statistics for airline safety. After he reassured all present how safe flight is in comparison to other modes of transportation, it always shocked people when he mentioned that low probability of survival in a crash. He loved to end his spiel with some comment about how all the safety information is just to reduce flier’s anxiety and little will truly help you in a crash. Whether true or not, he loved the look on the faces around the table when he said it and how the conversation almost always turned to someone else’s profession. A meeting with bad news has a similar impact on employees. Some will check out once the topic is known while others will only half listen as their brain tries to deny, insulate, or remove the anxiety. Consequently, when as leaders, we need people the most tuned in, we have to fight harder to ensure that it happens.
We All Understand in Different Ways
I am always amazed at how two or three people can hear the same story and draw very different conclusions. Most of us experience this with family, friends, and coworkers on a fairly routine basis and it definitely an element of the human condition. Due to filtering and processing, we all work through information in our own unique way. In order to be an effective communicator, we have to map at least the major ways possessed by our audience and provide information that addresses the major methods.