Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Communicating the Spaces between the Words

Paul Bernhardt's painting of Communication Breakdown portrays the view that disaster to the industrial landscape is a result of faulty communication systems. What about the human communication systems in the service industry of ATC? Can communication styles of management threaten the wellbeing of ATCOs and support staff? For example what is the link between the use of memos and the communication process? Further, how does a manager's view of chronemics impact upon her communication style? 

"The day that soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day that you stop leading them" - General Colin Powell

Remember the nuclear reactor accident at Fukushima, Japan? In Hiroko Tabuchi's 2012 column in the Asia Pacific edition of the New York Times, it was affirmed that a breakdown in communications was a causative factor according to a  parliamentary inquiry into the accident. The chairman of the inquiry condemned his country's culture for "reflexive obedience" and "the devotion to sticking with the program". If the managers had been approachable and if the operators had tried to clarify the instructions that they received, the situation would have had a different outcome.  Could there be a parallel in ATC? 

For example, consider the use of memos. Could it be that memos communicate the indications that our managers expect reflexive obedience and are insular to questions, clarifications, suggestions and even criticism from ATCOs? Well, how many memos have been circulated for this week? Are memos distributed in response to a negative occurrence or, to emphasise "rules" or, to reprimand an errant ATCO? 
If so, managers will want to revisit the textbook  explanation for the use of memos. To reiterate briefly, according to Janice Tingum of Demand Media, memos are public tools of communication to: concisely supplement a change in policy or, commend and recognise the efforts of outstanding employees. Anything outside of this requires the use of a letter or an email. Yes, memos used improperly send a negative message about the communicative style of a manager and the use of power, which can negatively impact upon wellbeing. The same principles apply to chronemics.

Chronemics are the ways in which we view and in this case; use time as part of  our communicative style. Summoning a trainer to an impromptu meeting while expecting that ATCOS make an appointment when they need to speak with a manager sends a subliminal message about time, communication and power. A manager who makes an ATCO wait unduly long before speaking with her is another use of chronemics to send a message about communicative styles and power. A manager who checks her messages on her mobile or portable while at a meeting; or who persistently arrives late for meetings; habitually postpones meetings; holds frequent meetings and does not answer correspondences timely, are some other examples of chronemics and communicative styles as an indirect display of passive abusive forms of power. 
Recall that communication is the 2-way interaction between a sender and a receiver with mutual understanding indicated by feedback. An ATCO can discern the expectations or ethical code of behavior from the way in which her manager communicates the spaces between the words. That is, the nonverbal forms of communication, can send potent messages about behavioral expectations which can negatively impact upon employee wellbeing. 
Managers are encouraged to use engaging forms of communication over informing styles of communication which will be the subject of a future post.  
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