Look in the paper or go to any job seeker website and look at a page of job listings. Look at any type of job you want. Unless you’ve selected ‘gravedigger’, I guarantee you that 95% of the jobs on the page will include one of these phrases:
- Must have well developed communication skills
- Applicant will display excellent communication and interpersonal skills
- Strong communication skills and the ability to listen effectively
- Outstanding oral and written communication skills a necessity
I’ve never been a fan of the bland, buzz-phrase endowed, captain-obvious language found in the average job advertisement. I often laugh at these phrases, and take for granted that I, and all but the most in-bred of applicants can communicate effectively. After all, it’s something that every man and his dog can claim to have (on paper anyway), and even in state of nervous tension, most of us can stumble our way through a job interview without the interviewer wanting to stab us repeatedly with a pencil.
But there’s a reason that these phrases turn up for just about every job in existence, so what’s the deal?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot today, after I finished reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. For those who haven’t heard of it, Outliers contends that people aren’t born as geniuses, or superstars, and that everyone at the pinnacle of success in society was able to get there due to certain advantages (age, education, cultural background, opportunity, hard work, luck) that they’ve had throughout their lives. It’s a simple theory, and the book examines it through some enjoyable examples.
In one of the chapters looking at cultural background, Gladwell examines plane crashes, and reveals a startling correlation between crashes and the cultural backgrounds of the pilots. Studying the black box recordings of several infamous disasters, we see that one of the main factors in many crashes is the lack of communication between pilots and crew members. More specifically, many accidents occur when one person of lower rank notices something amiss, but doesn’t speak up about it to his superiors, or if he does, he doesn’t emphasise the danger enough.
Gladwell points to Geert Hofstede’s Power Distance Index (PDI) to account for this; a scale which looks at how much a particular culture values and respects authority. Countries with a higher PDI (nations with a greater emphasis on authority) were more likely to have crashes occur. In these countries (the examples in the book were South Korea and Colombia) the crew were unwilling to speak up to their captain, as this would be a an offensive breach of social norms. In the low PDI countries (USA, Australia, New Zealand) there are no such issues. We don’t worry so much about offending superiors, and will speak up when we sense a problem. The data showed that the lower the PDI, the better the airline safety record.
With this in mind, it kind of puts a whole new importance on the old communication skills thing. It might be worth bearing that in mind next time you have an interview, huh?
All this has given me pause to consider the state of my own communications skills. Are they really up to scratch?
On paper I quite literally have the skills: I have a bachelor’s degree in English (Communications Studies) from the University of Western Australia for Pete’s sake. Give me a pen and paper or a keyboard and a blog, and I’m confident I can get my point across. But when it comes to practical situations, am I as good as I think I am?
I play in an indoor soccer team and we’re currently on a 5 game losing streak. Every week, before the game we talk about trying to speak up and communicate more in-game, but when we actually play it’s like I’ve taken a vow of silence. Admittedly I expend a lot of energy just trying to breathe, but it still disappoints me that I don’t speak up enough even when I’ve consciously flagged it as an issue.
Another example: a couple of weeks ago at work, my boss asked if I wanted to cover somebody else’s vastly unglamorous job for a day, and despite what I thought were clear protestations, I found myself being roped in. Was I not strong enough in voicing my objections? Was my superior oblivious to my protests, or were my protests being selectively ignored? There’s a fine balance involved when dealing with bosses. If a team member asked me to do something unreasonable I’d tell them to stick it where the sun don’t shine, but when it’s your boss you have to tread lightly.
And that in turn makes me wonder: if I was a crew member on a flight deck in that situation, would I be able to stand up to the captain and prevent a plane crash?