Famed playwright George Bernard Shaw once said that the “single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” This quote is no better demonstrated than in the classic telephone game I played in my eighth-grade civics class. The teacher would deliver a message in the back of the room to a student, and each student would whisper the message to the next student. The last student to receive the message would stand and deliver the message as he or she heard it. Invariably, the message that last student received would be quite different from the original. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the final versions of messages because of the differences between them and the originals. In this example, although the students were communicating a message, the practice of effective communication was not really taking place. Little did I know how important this exercise – and this lesson – would be to me throughout my life.
Elements of Communication
Leaders fill several roles. As a leader in my organization, I look at myself as a teacher, coach and mentor to those I lead; all of these roles require efficient, direct and active communication.
When delivering a tailgate to a crew, active communication requires several elements in order to be successful. Among these elements are accurate and clear delivery; the ability to lay out a plan and articulate thoughts and ideas; assigning tasks to each crew member and prioritizing the various steps included in the plan; and most importantly, soliciting feedback and ensuring that the plan is completely understood by each crew member. Depending on the complexity and size of the job or project, it can be beneficial to provide each crew member with his or her own blueprint.
As a leader, it is paramount you understand that communication is a two-way street, and oftentimes members of your crew can contribute valuable clarifying information or insight to the project planning process. Not only will this help to create a sense of teamwork and ownership of the job, but it also will serve to engage and educate each crew member. Communication is just as much about listening as it is about speaking. Ultimately, the success of a project comes down to the cohesion of the team as a unit in conjunction with the leader’s ability to effectively disseminate information.
Early on in my career, junior crew members were seen and not heard. Prints were kept out of sight and there was a strict hierarchy on the crew. Times have changed, and now junior members have a voice in the direction of the job. Teamwork, engagement and ownership are increased when the whole crew has a part in the process. Inclusive, active communication leads to ownership and engagement, which lead to taking pride in your work, and taking pride in your work leads to job satisfaction.
Even when a solid game plan is sufficiently conveyed during a tailgate or any other time, execution of the plan requires continued emphasis on active communication. Sometimes, however, a communication breakdown leads to abysmal execution. For example, 15 years ago I was running four bucket crews, two on each end of a new three-phase 25-kV line. The instructions were that Team A would first energize the circuit up to Team B. Team B would then phase the old conductor to the new conductor and tap through, and then the team members would remove a jumper carrying the load. The crucial step was when Team A was supposed to close a disconnect and energize the new conductor. Unfortunately, a problem occurred between the relay men, on radios, who were tasked with the communication of steps between Team A and Team B. Team A’s relay man told Team B’s relay man that the disconnect was closed, and they could make their tap and remove the jumper. But Team A’s relay man was a step ahead and relayed the information before the blade was closed. When Team B lifted the jumper, it broke the load and dropped several hundred customers. Miscommunication between teams was the critical error. Had the relay men engaged in proper three-way communication, there is a strong likelihood this situation may have been prevented. Thankfully there were no injuries, but a number of customers were left without power. Following a safety stand-down, the crew leader reinforced the importance of awareness on the job and making sure that the information you are communicating is indeed correct.
Mistakes like the one above often lead to tragedy, but leaders can help to avoid them by placing great emphasis on active communication, awareness and engagement – three keys to success in the field.
About the Author: Jay Brown is a 40-year lead lineman in the Distribution Construction and Maintenance Department of Delmarva Power in Wilmington, Del. He has led the utility’s Safety Action Committee and is a regular coordinator of the High Voltage Safety Awareness Program for New Castle County. He also is a safety observer for the Square One Peer-to-Peer Observation Program that is meant to promote safety in the workplace.