A Tale of Two Delays : What is Good Communication?

Trains…

Once upon a time in the not too distant past, I took a train from Kings Cross to Cambridge.  About 30 minutes into the journey there was a very loud clunking sound, followed by a hiss and then we ground to a halt (half in and half out of a tunnel). Quite quickly the Conductor got on the blower to say that it was obvious something had happened and he was going to find out what.

From then on, he was a master of communication and customer care. He told us exactly what had happened, he went through all the coaches to make sure we had heard his message, and to see if anyone needed to move carriages. About every 15 minutes he would update us during the entire two hours we sat there, including telling us that he had no new information. The two hours didn’t seem onerous at all (though I did think of all the poor people waiting at Kings Cross, all of whom will have been delayed because we were stuck), because of this man’s exceptional calm, communication and care.

Planes…

Contrast.

Once upon a more recent time, I was scheduled to fly from Kalamata Airport back to London. The hitch - a cyclone (Zorba) lashing the Southern Peloponnese which made me highly sceptical that we would get off the ground. As I was driving to the airport being buffeted by gale-force winds and rain, I thought, “this is the kind of weather they tell you NOT to go out in and here I am driving in it.”

The airline’s website still kept saying the flight was going to happen, though slightly delayed.  We got there, checked in, and then we waited. And waited. And waited. About an hour after we were supposed to leave, friends began ringing to say that our plane had tried three times to land and failed and that it was being diverted to Athens. The website, however, still continued to inform all of us who were looking at it that the flight was only slightly delayed. 

And in the departure hall? Silence from the airline. Not only silence, but not one airline representative to talk to. At first, everyone was rather good spirited – none of us really believed the weather was going to clear in the foreseeable future – so, as is often in some form of adversity, strangers were chatting to strangers. However, as the day wore on and the silence continued, the good spirits turned to restlessness, and restlessness to minor grumbling.

I won’t go into the endless detail of the 26 hours it took to get home; this involved a lot of waiting, a three-hour coach journey, more waiting and still mostly silence. When we finally boarded the plane in Athens, 14 hours after we were due to leave Kalamata, the captain tried to placate us all with some explanation, but by then most of us were so exhausted, his apologies fell on deaf ears.

You can’t apologise for weather. And of course, a two-hour delay can’t compare with a 14 hour one. What you can compare, however, was the way we were communicated to in each instance.

And Good Communication…

Being in the ‘management training’ business, the two situations reminded me of what poor management looks like vs. great management, and it’s all to do with communication. People don’t like not knowing. The less they know, the more they guess what’s going on and then they make it up and the more they make it up, the more they gossip. Gossip feeds on gossip and it creates bad feelings and, more importantly, mistrust.

The more information people have, the more reassured they feel. Even if it’s ‘bad’ news, it’s a whole lot better than no news. No news makes people feel grumpy and frustrated. Then they begin to act like children because they are being treated like them, with the ‘grown-ups’ doling out the information they think is appropriate.

It’s all right to tell people the truth. You don’t have to protect them. If there’s sensitive information that can’t be made public yet, then tell them that, rather than not saying anything at all.

Something else I’ve noticed over the years is that once ‘management’ do tell their staff what’s going on, it’s usually not as drastic or doom-laden as that which has been made up.  But, because people have been sitting on all these emotions caused by what they think might be happening, even getting the ‘it’s not so bad after all’ news doesn’t dispel the distrust which often gets worse.

When in doubt, think trains. If your communication style is anything like that brilliant conductor’s, you’ll be a dream manager.

By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory