Gladwell on the importance of communication

April 4, 2009

Malcom Gladwell’s new book Outliers (2008) offers fascinating and fresh views on success. We tend to think of success — be it whatever kind — as a mixture of personal factors. And we’re wrong (partially, anyways).

Gladwell argues that success lies more in where we’re from than what we’re like. He makes his claim with a wide array of wonderful stories based on sociology. If you’re familiar with his work, you know what to expect. If not, try any of his books and I’m pretty sure you’ll want more.

I’ll highlight one of the stories here, the Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes. It may not be the best part of the book, but it really got me thinking because of the point it was making: communication is vital, life-saving even. Here’s an excerpt:

“The typical [flight] accident involves seven consecutive human errors. – – These seven errors, furthermore, are rarely problems of knowledge or flying skill. It’s not that the pilot has to negotiate some critical technical maneuver and fails. The kinds of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication. One pilot knows something important and somehow doesn’t tell the other.”

Gladwell digs deeper into this using Geert Hofstede’s dimensions of national culture differences. He analyses blackbox transcriptions and shows how cultural factors may lead to ambiguous messages or not daring to speak up to your superiors. Miscommunication leads to mistakes. Fatal in this case.

But this finding goes beyond the cockpit. I think it’s relevant to all of us. You see miscommunication in action everyday. And you’ll see more of it as the world gets ever more multicultural.

My question: What if we had a blackbox for every office, every factory, every restaurant and so on? What would we learn from those transcripts after a crash? How many lives could we save by learning? How much better the life in the cockpit would get with better communication?

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