Walls & Ceilings - December 2009 - (Page 38)

smart BUSINESS BY JIM OLSZTYNSKI Communicate A bizarre incident occurred near my community last winter that holds lessons for everyone in the business world. A suburban commuter train filled with hundreds of passengers during the morning rush was delayed for almost two hours while local police searched for a man aboard with a gun. Not only that train, but all others following on the same line were backed up, causing thousands of commuters to be late for work or other appointments. Police located the gunman, who turned out to be a U.S. Secret Service agent authorized and maybe even required to be armed. It all stemmed from a cascade of misunderstanding. The agent normally drove to his offi ce in downtown Chicago, but hearing radio reports of snow turning that morning’s traffi c to a crawl, he decided to take the train instead—the fi rst time he had ever done so. Being unfamiliar with the system, the Secret Service agent asked a ticket agent at the train station whether there were metal detectors on the train, because he had a gun. That shook up the ticket agent, who notifi ed police after the Secret Service passenger had boarded his train. Police armed with automatic rifl es intercepted it at the next station. They evacuated and searched several cars worth of passengers before locating the Secret Service agent based on the ticket agent’s description. It took them awhile to check him out, causing further delay as well as considerable anxiety among the passengers. Let’s examine what went wrong here: 1. The Secret Service agent failed to identify himself as a law enforcement officer when casually informing the ticket agent he had a gun. The message lacked context. 2. The startled ticket agent failed to question the man further. You would think most people would say, “Huh?” and get some clarification. Fear may have played a role here, although I suspect the Secret Service agent didn’t look like a thug and a crazed gunman is unlikely to volunteer that he is packing. You can’t really blame the police for the way they handled it, given the sketchy information provided them. So what we have here is a classic example of how a small communication breakdown can have oversized consequences. Sound familiar? Don’t things like this happen almost every day in your business operations? Failures To Even in more serene settings it’s easy to be misunderstood. Whenever asked to give my name to someone over the phone, for obvious reasons I automatically begin by saying “I’ll spell that for you.” Nonetheless, when things get sent to me I’ve seen that z replaced by any and all of the aforementioned “ee”-sounding letters from time to time. If letters get so commonly confused, think of how easy it is to misunderstand words, phrases or expressions. And even if they get understood correctly, there’s that issue of context. The English language is filled with ambiguities in which words and expressions can have more than one meaning. Consider the following: A distributor called a vendor to order two truckloads of pipe. Business suddenly took a downturn, and just before delivery the distributor called to tell the vendor, “Cut the order in half.” Sure enough, when the two trucks arrived, each piece of pipe was cut in half! I don’t know if this incident really happened, but it serves to illustrate how important it is to be alert for ambiguity. HUMAN ERRORS How many times have the wrong materials or equipment been delivered because someone neglected to specify the size, horsepower or whatever needed for the job at hand? Or maybe the right product got sent, but to the wrong place because someone forgot to mention an exception to the normal delivery location. Imprecise communication runs rampant throughout society. There’s a reason why the phonetic “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie …” system is used instead of alphabet letters by the military, air traffi c controllers and other occupations where a failure to communicate can have deadly consequences. They know it can be hard to distinguish the “C” sound from D, E, G, P, T, V and Z amid radio static and chaos. COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN Vagueness is another communication breakdown that can have drastic consequences. That’s basically what happened in the conversation between the Secret Service agent and the railroad employee, who was told someone was carrying a gun but not why. Imagine making an appointment to meet someone “after dinner.” How useful would that be without telling the person at what time you fi nish eating dinner? Imprecise communication not only leads to mistakes, it also wastes time. Instead of communicating something once, it causes both the sender and recipient of the message to go back and forth trying to clarify what’s going on. Even worse, they won’t bother to clarify. They’ll simply act upon | Walls & Ceilings | December 2009

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Walls & Ceilings - December 2009

Walls & Ceilings - December 2009
Contents
Up Front
Trade News
Most Requested Products of 2009
Sixth Annual Excellence Awards
Move it on Up
City Central
The Finish Line
Smart Business
Trowel Talk
Straight Green
All in Agreement
Industry Voices
Toolbox
Information Showcase
Classified Marketplace
Advertiser Directory

Walls & Ceilings - December 2009

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