Mishap Prevention through Effective Communication

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- One of the most effective ways to improve a safety culture and prevent mishaps is to optimize safety related communication throughout an organization. Unfortunately, we often fail to call a "time out" or "knock it off" when we observe risky behaviors even when we know we should.

If you were to ask 100 random Airmen, nearly every single one of them would say their peers should caution others when they observe someone operating in an unsafe manner. However, only about half would say they actually do provide this critical feedback when they themselves see it. So, why is there a difference between the self-reported values and the actual behavior?

The most likely answer you will get to that question is that they believe giving safety related feedback will create a conflict. Or perhaps they do not feel competent at giving safety feedback or they do not want to challenge a more senior-ranking member. So, how do we overcome these barriers and improve our safety culture?

We will be more open to safety-related feedback if everyone would do a better job of providing and receiving it. To provide effective corrective feedback to others when they are working at risk, don't make it personal, but rather focus on the behavior. Ask questions to force a discussion, and don't simply lecture. Give feedback immediately and one-on-one, while showing genuine concern for others' feelings and well-being. Offer the opportunity to work together to find better solutions. Finally, thank that Airman for listening to your concern.

To receive corrective feedback effectively, you must actively listen and avoid interrupting the individual providing feedback. Remain open and receptive and don't get defensive. Remember that it isn't personal.  Discuss better ways of doing the task or seek clarification of the written guidance. Finally, thank the Airman for providing you that feedback.

In addition to cautioning others operating at-risk, it's important to praise those who regularly do their jobs safely. This simple act will lay the foundation for a more open, positive safety culture and increases the likelihood these work practices will be performed safely in the future. However, we as an institution don't do this very well and tend to focus more on the negative behavior itself rather than on providing that one-on-one praise or appreciation for the safety focused behaviors of our Airmen. Airmen at all levels would be better served if provided frequent, genuine praise for safe work practices. Before going any deeper into the message being communicated, let's look at the various communication styles we have all seen throughout our careers.

The Four Styles of Communication

A complicating factor with safety communication is that people have different styles of communication. In his book "Communicating Effectively for Dummies," Marty Brounstein defines four basic communication styles: the Dominant, Passive, Passive-Aggressive and Empathic. The first three styles are generally counter-productive and impede the cultivation of a positive culture. The fourth style, the Empathic, is ideal and most conducive to effective communication and overall culture improvement.

The Dominant Communicator - Dominant communicators tend to "run people over" in conversations. Dominant communicators often believe they're never wrong, their opinions are more important than those of others, and people who disagree with them are either disloyal or misinformed. These misguided beliefs often lead to negative behaviors such as public criticism of others, blaming others when problems arise, acting bossy and negative, using verbally aggressive and threatening language, showing a lack of appreciation for the accomplishments of others, interrupting others and even finishing their sentences or dismissing new ideas without listening to the rationale. Dominant communicators often provoke fear, counter control and alienation among others. Their behavior fosters resistance, defiance, sabotage, retaliation, the formation of alliances, lying and covering up. Dominant communicators damage the culture and morale and hinder optimal organizational performance.

The Passive Communicator - Passive communicators tend to turn people off by being indirect and meek in their communication. Passive communicators often believe you shouldn't express your true feelings, make waves or disagree with others. They often think other people's opinions are more important than their own. These beliefs often lead to negative behaviors such as remaining quiet, even when being treated unfairly; asking for permission unnecessarily; frequently complaining rather than acting; and delegating personal choice to others. Passive communicators retreat from interpersonal conflict and accept directions without question. Passive communicators create frustration and mistrust because of not knowing where they stand. They create the presumption they lack the courage to be a leader.  They also hinder open communication.

The Passive-Aggressive Communicator - Passive-aggressive communicators tend to believe you should go behind people's backs instead of dealing with people directly. They appear to agree with others when they really don't agree. They make sarcastic remarks and take subtle digs at others. They send critical messages via e-mail and copy others. They hold grudges, value "getting even" and sabotage others behind their backs. Passive-aggressive communicators refuse to help others or give others the silent treatment.  Passive-aggressive communicators cause increased factions and favoritism in the workplace. They increase negative gossip or back stabbing, creating an environment of low interpersonal trust. Their actions often lead to diminished job performance, increased uncertainty and job dissatisfaction and increased turnover.

The Empathic Communicator - Unlike the previous three styles, the empathic communicator interacts effectively with others to maintain healthy, long-term relationships. Organizations with empathic communicators are likely to have more healthy organizational cultures. Empathic communicators generally believe that personal opinions and the opinions of others are important and that the process of coming to a decision, not just the outcome, is also important. They think acquiring input from others boosts morale and generally leads to better decision making. These beliefs often lead to desirable behaviors, such as communicating expectations instead of demands. The focus tends to be on proactive and action-oriented conversation, with stated, realistic expectations. Empathic communicators communicate in a direct and honest manner, and work to achieve goals without compromising others. Empathic communicators increase perception of autonomy or personal control, and motivate people to achieve and go beyond the call of duty for the organization. They foster an improved sense of appreciation and respect, which in turn leads to increased levels of trust, respect, honesty and openness. The end result is enhanced organizational communication, higher morale and better performance.

We've all been told that communication is a two-way street. What good is an empathic communicator if no one listens? Of course, empathic communicators also are good listeners. They listen for both emotion and content to understand what the other person is saying. They also reflect back what the speaker is saying to show understanding.

In addition, empathic communicators use non-judgmental tones with others and avoid being too quick to offer advice or dismiss ideas. When receiving safety feedback, effective listeners thank the person for providing feedback, regardless of how well it is given, and are not defensive about advice to improve. They collaborate with others on developing potential solutions and reach consensus on actions to take. In dealing with rude and difficult people, empathic communicators don't take it personally, lose their cool or lose sleep over the conflict. After all, the rude person isn't losing sleep. Empathic communicators also are able to effectively exchange information without emotion and tell difficult people they understand their position but don't appreciate how they delivered the message.

The Bottom-line

So why did I walk you through the perceived barriers of effective safety-related communication, the various styles of communication, and improving our listening skills? It's simple: effective communication is an integral part of achieving a mishap-free workplace. Most mishaps in the Air Force are due, in part, to risky behaviors, yet some Airmen are often too reluctant to provide safety-related feedback to their fellow Airmen. By providing and receiving safety feedback more effectively, including corrective feedback for at-risk behavior and praise, the organization will maximize its safety culture and achieve peak performance.