Leadership Communication: Lessons From an Airport

While waiting for a flight, have you ever just sat there and listened to all the announcements? Recently, I was heading off for a short holiday and so was not as focused on work for a change. Just for fun I actually listened to all the various announcements while watching how those around me responded to them. There were a full range of announcements which had nothing to do with me, or for that matter any of the people waiting with me to board our flight. Announcements such as:

  • Someone has left their car unattended in front of the terminal and it is about to be towed
  • The USO facility located in terminal B (not our terminal) is available for all service personnel and their families
  • The Interfaith Chapel is located in terminal A and is open 24 hours a day (also not our terminal)
  • Passengers named XYZ must return to their gate immediately or their tickets will be canceled and their luggage removed from the flight
  • An endless stream of announcements about flights to other locations

As I watched those around me it appeared that few, if any, were actually listening to these various proclamations. Some were wearing headphones, others appeared deeply involved in their reading, some were talking nonstop to another person, while others were sleeping.

Then it occurred to me that announcements in airports closely resemble communications in organizations. There are 3 reasons why:

Reasons Airport Announcements Resemble Leadership Communication in Organizations

First, there is the assumption that announcements are communications. In most instances, that is not the case. As an example, if I were looking for the Interfaith Chapel, it is likely that I would have figured out where it was long before hearing the announcement. Yet in companies, employees are bombarded daily with “announcements” in the form of emails, voice mails, postings, etc. I wonder how many of these company announcements are actually experienced as a meaningful communication?

Second, it occurred to me that most of the airport announcements were designed to be defensive. That is, to protect the organization in the event of a complaint from someone. Can you imagine what happens when the person who left the car running in front of the terminal and disappeared inside for some time comes back and discovers the car has been hauled away? Or the three people who were having such a great time in the bar that they lost track of time and missed their flight? In each of these examples you can imagine how irate the people would be. So the airport can say, “I’m sorry but we paged you X times”. Then I thought about how often communication in organizations is defensive, or “CYA”. That is, designed to protect the person sending the message rather than making any difference for those who might receive it.

Third, like announcements in airports, most of the corporate messages go unnoticed or are ignored. Sure there is the exception, like when a senior person is leaving the company. Or when changes to benefits are explained or holiday dates are defined. Last but not least those announcements regarding dress code, which are much discussed, but seldom in a positive way. Unless the messages have direct pertinence to an employee, however, they most likely will be completely disregarded.

3 Tips for Leaders Regarding Communications

So what is a leader to do in an organization where many of the employees have become “tone deaf” to the slew of announcements and messages which come out from the various groups and locations and how can leadership communication be improved?

Observe all that flies by your employees on a daily basis. Ask how people are feeling about and dealing with the flood of emails. This will likely be a good interaction, if for no other reason it will surprise people that you are actually concerned.

Notice how many of the emails come from you. This could be directly from you. Or, likely many more come from others who somehow are attaching their messages to something related to you. If you are like most executives, you are too busy to notice all the emails that are somehow associated with you. You want to pay particular attention to those emails which are written from a defensive posture. While sitting in an airport we find all these defensive announcements annoying but can appreciate why the announcements are being made. Not so in organizations. Often these defensive message are both “CYA” and seem to imply that the readers are either irresponsible or not particularly bright. Not exactly the communication leaders want to be associated with.

Know how many messages in the organization are simply ignored. The emails are deleted prior to being opened or are quickly scanned. There is an illusion of communication. This illusion is critical for leaders, since communication is the primary medium for leadership. That is, leadership occurs for employees as a communication, which is how they become engaged and inspired by leaders. If employees are overwhelmed with garbage communications, it is much harder for authentic leadership to occur.

Make Sure You Have a Good Filter

Let me end with one other analogy. In the beginning, I mentioned sitting in an airport. The flight I was catching was to Toronto. From there, I drove to our family cottage which is on a lake in northern Ontario. This lake is pristine. It is also the source for our water at the cottage. We have a filtration system, but if the lake became too contaminated with the wrong types of algae, it would overwhelm the filtration system and our water would not be safe to use. That is why the Provincial health official rigorously checks water quality in all the lakes in cottage country.

Here is the question for you as a leader, and leadership communication in general. Who is checking the quality of the “water source” for communications in your organization? How would you know if toxic agents are seeping into communications and have a damaging effect on the listening of employees for leaders in your organization?

It’s a question worth asking.


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