Communication and Human Factors

A fundamental Project Management principle is that 95% of the Project Manager job is communication. The success of every project is directly related to the Project Managers ability to communicate. This principle is not unique to Project Management. It applies to every occupation requiring human interaction.

I was flying BK117 helicopter N65J 26 years ago. It was a hot summer afternoon and we had completed 2 back to back medical transports. I landed at Grant Hospital to pick up the crew after refueling. A dispatcher radioed me with a request from Fairfield Medical Center back to Grant Hospital; he asked if I could take the run. I was yellow for weather which meant the pilot had to make a weather decision. I had just received a weather briefing and update from Flight Service while refueling and was aware a line of thunderstorms just reaching Dayton 80 miles off to the west. I asked the dispatcher what the radar looked like and he confirmed that weather was arriving in Dayton. The crew was boarding the aircraft, I accepted the run and we took off for Lancaster. If we had no problems this mission was a milk run. Despite consciously knowing better; given the approaching weather I subconsciously resented having been asked to make that decision. There was always the chance the medical crew would run into problems at the sending hospital and we could not complete this run.

The patient packaging process had taken nearly an hour, so far. This process normally takes about 20 minutes or less; under normal conditions we would have all ready landed back at the receiving facility. The medical crew was powerless to impact the situation because the sending doctor had sent the patient to radiology and ordered several new test. I was nervously watching the western skies for signs of approaching weather and called the flight service station weather briefer again for an update. He told me the Thunderstorms were on a line between London and Marysville and was moving east about 25 miles an hour. I reluctantly decided to inform the dispatcher and the medical crews that we could not fly to Grant Hospital until after the weather had moved through; estimating an hour and a half delay. The crew completed the trip by ground with a local ambulance company and I flew the aircraft back to base after the Thunderstorms had passed. The patient did well.

I was convinced that the crew was angry with me, they were not. I convinced myself that the dispatcher had pressured me in to taking the run. The next day I complained to the Director. He pulled the audio tapes and listened to them with me. There was nothing there. The Dispatcher had neither done, nor said anything remotely inappropriate. There was no pressure. I just sat there thinking, but,.. but,.. but? I learned something that day; the mind is a terrible thing and we really need to stamp it out in our life time. My self image meter fell two rungs and the regenerating, sometimes bitter self evaluation process began.

Anything that interferes with or disrupts understanding of a transmitted message is noise. Noise is not just static or poor quality sound waves; noise can be any number of things. It can be language, cultural, or semantic differences. It can be our emotional state influencing our interpretation. A reputation, whether accurate or not; can preconceive what the message receiver expects to hear regardless of the senders intent or content. A lack of information interferes with understanding. That is where trust is so very important to us. Incompatible objectives can interfere with communications. That is why our Mission, Vision, and Value statements are so important. When organizations members do not have the same objectives they are all in trouble. Liberals and conservatives these days automatically “assume message content” and don’t really listen to each others message. All they hear is blah, blah, blah, noise. Authority figures can have the same problem with some receivers who have a problem with authority.

Smart people who study communications say the 53% of meaning is lost when you separate yourself from the non verbal cues that exist in a face to face communication. Nearly every communication that takes place between dispatch and transport teams is conducted over the phone and without the benefit of the non verbal communication cues. “Don’t they know we are working as fast as we can”? “Can’t they see I have an anxious requestor on the line trying to make a decision?” No, as a matter of fact “they” don’t. What percentage of your organizations communications are conducted over the phone without the benefit of non verbal cues. Work stresses of your jobs, high operational pace, and tough operational decisions, are all noise that can derail a vital communications. The higher the noise level becomes, the more aware you have to be of what they are, and how they may interfere.

There exist, a certain degree of tension between the dispatch centers of every police, fire department, EMS, trucking and cab company in the country. These phenomena exist to some extent at business as well; a phone call equals work of which at any given moment may be unwelcome. Tension is an innate natural challenge that always has to be managed. Even the most enthusiastic professional is in the end human and subject to frailties of our species. Remembering that keeps us grounded.

A lack of trust in the first tenant of dysfunction. Providing grace and patience to those making decisions is basic respect. Both message sender and receiver have a responsibility to achieve a successful communication exchange. When competing objectives arise internally we have to fall back on the organization’s Mission, Vision, and Values. We all, from time to time must throw our own personal objectives up against those of the organization; if they don’t match we need to go in to that bitter self evaluation process and realign or move on. Trust and respect are necessary for healthy communications. Healthy communications are required to become a learning organization. You need to be a learning organization to grow, prosper and survive.

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