Communication that Kills – Literally

In 2013, two infants died at my local hospital.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts did a thorough investigation into the causes of the deaths.

They determined that communications within the hospital was a major factor.

Specifically, the hospital’s culture had been hobbled with a “hint and hope” style of communication.You know hint and hope, don’t you?

It can be found in strongly hierarchical, command and control style organizations, where the folks at the top have have established a track record where they never want to hear any bad news from below.

Over time, this style of leadership gets baked into the company culture.

Where does that leave the people towards the bottom?  Dis-empowered, and hinting and hoping.

Because of fear of repercussion, they only hint at a problem issue, and then hope that the people above on the org chart get the message and take the appropriate action.

In the case of the hospital, a nurse might suggest (hint) that the doctor stop in soon to see the patient, and hope that the doctor will “get” the sense of urgency.  And leave it at that.

In that hospital environment, hint and hope literally killed.  Hint and hope was also a contributing factor in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Your organization may not be operating with same level of risk as a hospital, NASA or a nuclear power plant. For you, hint and hope may not literally be fatal.

But it can kill your business.

Here are a few examples of hint and hope in action:

  • Employees who are afraid to speak up around customer issues they experience on the front line.

  • Managers who spend most of their days in meetings, but do their real work in the “meetings after the meetings”, because they won’t call out the real issues in the actual meeting.

  • Executive teams who go offsite for two days of “strategy meeting”, but spend the whole time discussing the crisis du jour because it’s more comfortable to talk about the daily symptoms than tackle the big cultural and systems issues that are causing the crisis in the first place.

“Hint and hope” petrifies the free-flow of trust and effective communication in companies.

The good news at the hospital is that they brought in a new CEO.  She’s made great strides in making change.  She started by observing people and teams on the job, and listening to employees at all levels.  She’s worked to rebuild staff morale, as well as build trust with the wider community.   Middle and senior managers are being trained to upgrade their leadership skills for the first time in years. The new CEO is leading a culture change where people at all levels are empowered to issue directives, not hints.

At the hospital, hint and hope is finally going away.

Where have you seen “hint and hope” in action?  What have been the costs?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.  

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