Here is a simple habit that can boost productivity in your organization. One client credits this technique for an 18% increase in annual revenue with a reduced headcount. It takes practice but quickly becomes second nature.
I brought this method into the workplace from my flight training. Pilots and air traffic controllers (ATC) must communicate precisely and briefly while also executing specialized tasks. Misunderstandings in aircraft can have horrible consequences, so specific communication techniques are required. Many of the most serious accidents are caused by failure to follow these practices, including the 1977’s Tenerife Airport Disaster, commercial aviation’s deadliest incident.
Talk may be cheap but miscommunication is costly.
Have you ever listened to the radio chatter between tower and cockpit? Some airliners have a channel for this on the passenger audio system. You may also listen live from your desk on web sites that relay audio from many airports. The conversations follow a strict pattern.
ATC: Specific Detailed Instruction
Pilot: Repeats Details of Instruction
Pilot: Specific Detailed Request
ATC: Repeats Details of Instruction with Permission or Alternative
Pilot: Confirms Details of Permission or Alternative
You can bring this clarity of communication to your workplace by making “Repeat Back” a habit. When making a request, that is, whenever you ask someone to create a result, be very clear about exactly what you want and by when. Finish with something like, “I’m not sure if I was clear enough. Please tell me what you are going to do.” Listen to the person’s response.
If you think you are too busy to spend time on Repeat Back, consider this. Maybe your stress, pressure, and deadlines are trivial compared with the stakes involved and performance needed to land a jetliner at a crowded airport.
Does your life seem too hectic for even one more conversation? Aircraft radio frequencies are “party lines” with many pilots using the same channel. They all hear each other and must wait for an opening before contacting ATC. Everyone is busy and no one wants to waste time or limited bandwidth. Indeed, punishments are imposed for verbose or unnecessary communications. Even in this constrained environment, repeating back instructions is so vital that the FAA’s manual for pilots repeats three times the necessity of acknowledgement. On the first two pages. In italics.
If pilots and air traffic controllers have time for Repeat Back, so do you.
I admit that I started using Repeat Back in my office because I expected to catch people not paying attention or distorting my instructions with their own preferences and prejudices. I was also applying the psychological Principle of Consistency, that is, most people want to act consistently with what they say. We are much more likely to do things we have said aloud than tasks someone—anyone—has merely told us to do. One practice, I thought, two benefits.
The first few times I tried the Repeat Back at the office I noticed a third, more valuable benefit.
After hearing an accurate Repeat Back of my request I often responded with, “Yes, that is what I asked for. But, now that I hear it, I realize that I have a better idea.” Just as often, the employee would be the one offering an improvement. He might suggest modifying the task or explain how that need was already being satisfied by a process of which I was unaware or had forgotten. After we tuned the details together, he left with a clear instruction and I was left with confidence the desired result would occur.
Turns out that airlines have also learned about this bonus benefit. In the aftermath of the Tenerife disaster, something new was added to pilot training. Flight crews were taught how to challenge a superior if he or she was making what might be a dangerous mistake. “Excuse me, Captain. I thought we were cleared for runway 32 left but you seem to be lining up on 32 right. Mind if I check that with ATC?” Everyone in the cockpit is responsible for safe operations, just as you want everyone in your company to be responsible for business goals. You need to listen to their concerns and suggestions, even if you are busy landing an airplane or a new client.
Making a regular practice of Repeat Back when delegating eased my mind–but not completely. Maximum relief only comes with the second part of this technique, Report Back.
My employees, in addition to Progress Reports covering major objectives, establish the habit of telling me immediately when an assigned task is complete or significantly delayed. Because part of my mind is always occupied with concerns about the progress of delegated tasks, my favorite email is the one word, “Done.” Seeing that word, I can take the task off my mind–perhaps after a quick check to verify satisfactory quality.
Periodic Progress Reports and the brief text, email, or verbal report of “Done” or “Finished” complete the technique with the Report Back.
There you have it. Get more done with less stress by investing a few moments in the powerful communication technique I call:
Make it a habit.
FAA Federal Aviation Administration
Aeronautical Information Manual:
Official Guide to Basic Flight Information and
ATC Procedures Chapter 4 Section 2
Radio Communications Phraseology and Techniques
Live Air Traffic Control
10 Deadliest Air Disasters Caused by Miscommunication
Tenerife Airport Disaster
Psychological Principle of Consistency
Air Traffic Controllers Epitomize Multitasking
The Power of Progress Reports
Make New Habits with My 1 Page Annual Calendar