Team communication lessons from crisis management

Serious issue

Communicating effectively as a team is key to performance. It allows the team to work together coherently and puts everyone on the same page. Sounds simple, but unfortunately, it’s something many teams struggle with and here’s why:

Mitigating speech creates ambiguity and could be misleading about the urgency of the situation.

People often mitigate speech in general conversation. In other words, they sugar coat the truth. How many times have you heard the phrase “if you have a second, perhaps we could talk about…”, we all know what’s really being said is, “we need to talk!”. While this might seem like a friendlier approach to take, it ultimately creates ambiguity and could be misleading about the urgency of the situation.

That might not seem too much of a problem but imagine that mitigated speech taking place in high pressured situations such as a cockpit or healthcare. Ambiguous language could potentially be fatal. Research shows flights are often safer when the co-pilot is in control, which might not sound very logical as they have far less experience. The reason behind it comes down to communication: the Pilot isn’t afraid to speak up about a situation and share their opinions whilst the co-pilot is in control. Whereas the research showed that when the Pilot is in control, the co-pilot is less comfortable sharing their opinions with someone more senior than them, so they hint at something rather than being direct. For example, saying “do you think we have enough fuel”, which really means, “we are going to run out of fuel on the way home!”. Similarly, in medicine, there is no room for error or sugar coating the message. In a crisis environment, “perhaps we need a surgeon” should really be translated to the more direct, “we need a surgeon!” helping people to use the appropriate level of assertiveness in a crisis situation is key to coming out the other side unscathed.

So, how do you do that? Sticking with the world of aviation, they offer a 5-step approach:

  1. Attention getter

Address the individual in the appropriate manner, “excuse me, sir”

Within a workplace environment, there may be similar situations when attempting to get the attention of a colleague or manager of yours, an example could be: “excuse me, can we talk?”

  1. State your concern

Ensure you use clear language and include your own worry with the situation, “we are running out of fuel”

As seen in the workplace example as, “the deadline for the event this week is near, and we are running out of time”

  1. State the problem as you see it

What is the issue that needs communicating? “I do not think we have enough to return home”

In the business context, “I don’t think we will have the collateral in time”

  1. State a solution

An alternative to avoid the issue you are communicating, “let us reroute to another airport”

In the business example it would follow, “let’s focus on organising what we already have”

  1. Obtain an agreement

Get confirmation for the next steps “does that sound good?”

Or similarly, “Do you think that’s sensible?”






Video call

A conversation like this is likely to happen in both aviation and at an organisational context, so, the next time you’re about to use the phrase “perhaps if we…” or “I wonder if…” stop yourself and consider what you’re about to mitigate. Try a more assertive approach, it might be exactly what your team needs to hear.


[1] Gladwell M. The ethnic theory of plane crashes. In: Gladwell M, editor. Outliers. New York: Little, Brown and Company; 2008. p. 177-223.