Make yourself understood: it's your responsibility

On August 6th 1997, at night and in bad weather, flight Korean Airlines 801, an Airbus A300, was getting ready land in Guam. It was carrying 254 people, a cockpit crew of three and it had something else on board as well, something that proved fatal: a culture of deference and obedience. As they were maneuvering to land, the tired captain made mistake after mistake, while the first officer and the flight engineer, who had a better grasp of the situation, only dared hint at the problem. Several times they said that the airport is not in sight, when it should have been. Procedure was clear: if the airport is not visible by a certain altitude, the landing is to be aborted immediately, but nobody spoke up boldly and clearly, and they continued. They expressed their concern as respectful suggestions, words left to float around, for the captain to pick them up and decide what to do with them. He didn't do anything. "The glide scope is incorrect" said another crew member, to no reaction. A minute later the captain asks "Isn't the glide slope working?". They see nothing in the stormy night, they have no visuals, and they are not aligned to the radio beacons, and yet, still, they keep descending as if everything is ok. The computer reads out the altitude. 1000 feet. 500 feet. They lower the landing gear, getting ready to touchdown, still going as if everything was on track. It was 12 seconds before impact, when the ground proximity system started blaring out, that the first office finally said what he wanted to say for at least 5 minutes, but never dared: he declared a missed approach. The captain finally reacted and pulled up. It was too late. The crash happened so unexpectedly, said Hyun Seong Hong, one of the 26 survivors, that passengers "had no time to scream". They had all the time in the world and dozens of chances to simply pull back on the lever and go around, but they didn't. 

I first saw this as a teenager, on one of the Air Crash Investigation episodes. I couldn't understand how a perfectly functioning aircraft and a highly train crew of three could fly straight into a mountain, towards their death and that of the vast majority of their passengers, because nobody said something clear before it was too late. How can you die out of too much politeness? 


Are you responsible to make yourself understood or is whoever you're talking to responsible to understand you? 


I don't have any more problems understanding it. Fortunately, I've never witnessed an aircraft flying into a mountain, but I've seen too many projects and teams crashing and burning. These teams too were in perfect flying condition, just like the Korean Air plane: they were made up of skilled individuals, well intended, equipped with the resources and tools they needed to get the job done. They had all they needed to detect the mountain they were hurling towards and to say something about it, but they didn't. When you talk to a project team post mortem, trying to understand what happened, how did it fail so badly and so unexpectedly, they all seem to know it was coming, and I don't think it's just hindsight bias. It was obvious they say. When you ask them why didn't they do something, why didn't they say something, most will protest: "I did!", followed immediately by "But I wasn't heard".

Before I go further, just want to be clear that I am not trying to dilute responsibility: clearly, final accountability rests with the leader of the team. However, that having been said, as the air travel industry painfully learned, it is not enough to rely on a single individual to be the only one that is able and expected to make clear, bold decisions in the face of changing circumstances. That individual, no matter how good or motivated, will eventually fail and, if there's nobody around to properly challenge him, he will bring down the whole team with him. You need the entire team to be in a mindset where they each own, as much as they can, the success of the entire project. They need to speak up boldly and clearly, they need to speak up even when the captain is not speaking up, and if the captain doesn't seem to understand what they're saying, they need to make themselves understood. The set of principles and practices the airline industry developed in the wake of Korean 801 and other fatal crashes caused by poor crew communication is called CRM, or Crew Resource Management: "The term "cockpit resource management" (later generalized to "crew resource management") was coined in 1979 by NASA psychologist John Lauber who had studied communication processes in cockpits for several years. While retaining a command hierarchy, the concept was intended to foster a less authoritarian cockpit culture, where co-pilots were encouraged to question captains if they observed them making mistakes".


In a transmitter accountability culture, "I said it, but I was not understood" can not be and is never a valid excuse


CRM would be surprisingly familiar to us: it talks about assertiveness, active listening, proactivity. I will focus on something even simpler, one concept, just one idea to remember, internalize and apply at all times: communication accountability. 

The key question is: are you responsible to make yourself understood or is whoever you're talking to responsible to understand you? If you lean towards the first, you have what is called transmitter accountability. If you lean towards the latter, you have what is called receiver accountability.

In transmitter accountability cultures, people work with the assumption that it's on them to make themselves understood. If they are not understood at first, they need to repeat the message. If they are still not understood, they will rephrase. If they are still not understood, they will try again, in a more serious tone. If they still can't get through, they will ask for help. In a transmitter accountability culture, "I said it, but I was not understood" can not be and is never a valid excuse. Speaking without making yourself understood is only half of the job. 

Receiver accountability cultures on other hand, work with the assumption that we say things and those listening will decide if they want to hear, understand, ask for more information, do something with it. Once you've said it, your job is done. Now it's up to them to probe for more if they chose to. "I said it, but I was not understood" is a perfectly valid excuse in receiver accountability cultures.


Romania, as a culture, is in the middle


Transmitter accountability cultures tend to use direct, clear and unambiguous messages. Things are said plainly, completely, acknowledgment is asked from the other party. Receiver accountability cultures soften the message and send out hints and suggestions. Transmitter accountability cultures are egalitarian, while receiver accountability cultures consider that saying things too bluntly in front of your seniors is a sign of serious disrespect, a lack of sophistication and elegance. You're supposed to hint at the problem, almost embarrassed that you're even bringing it up, and let them figure out the implied, but not stated, meaning behind it. "Today the weather radar has helped us a lot", said the Korean 801 first officer, hinting towards the captain that the visibility was bad and the situation complicated. "Yes, they are very useful", replied the captain. Culturally, he was expected to pick up on the hidden message, on the meaning behind the words, and start asking questions, making decisions. That day he didn't. 

Romania, as a culture, is in the middle. Eastern cultures tend to lean towards receiver accountability. Western cultures lean towards transmitter accountability. 

My advice is simple: national culture aside, in business, in IT, chose transmitter accountability. Starting today, take ownership of your communication: you are responsible to make yourself understood. "I said it but they didn't get it" is never going to be an excuse for you again.