“What We’ve Got Here Is a Failure to Communicate”

As irritating as it may be to have staff question your decisions, it is better for you to have the benefit of their input and have them to know that their opinion counts

Steven A. Adelman

Several of my cases recently have brought to mind this famous line from the old Paul Newman movie, Cool Hand Luke.

In one case, an operations manager was assigned what was clearly too few staff for an event that everyone agreed would attract an “active” crowd. She learned that her area was understaffed several hours before the show, at a time more workers could have been called in. But the manager said nothing at the time. Much later, at the deposition that inevitably followed the resulting mishap, she testified, “My opinion don’t count. I just deal with the staffing that they give me.”

From the depositions of the manager’s equally disempowered co-workers, it became apparent that this was a cultural problem throughout the venue. The people with the best operational knowledge had been systemically discouraged from questioning orders. So they didn’t. In at least one instance, guest safety suffered as a result.

In another case, several witnesses testified vaguely about the words spoken during a brief but important conversation shortly before disaster struck. They all agree that there was a request to delay a performance due to an impending event characterized either generically as “weather” or more specifically as “rain.”

Here is the communication issue. There is “weather” everywhere, all the time. As I write this, it is sunny and 105 degrees here in Scottsdale – that’s weather, no less than tornadoes over the Midwest, right? So you would think someone would have asked, “What weather?” And if the stated reason to delay the show was just “rain,” shouldn’t an experienced live event professional, knowing that musicians routinely play in the rain, demand to know what made that rain different from all other rain?

Again, however, no one questioned what they were told. In each case, words were spoken, but there was a failure to communicate, which led to catastrophe. And guess who gets blamed?

When trying to be understood, we have our work cut out for us. Some speakers aren’t good at saying what they really mean. Some listeners aren’t so good at indicating that they don’t understand, or they’re not able to do as they’ve been told. Some people are afraid to speak up to their bosses. Others don’t think about whether their understanding makes any sense. Language or cultural barriers can compound these issues, and communication is always harder in a crisis. Because we know, or should know, all of this, the law imposes on all of us a duty to deal with our communication issues.

Some of the solution lies in creating and using a unified command structure, such as the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Incident Command System (ICS) program.

In addition, there is a cultural element that cannot be overlooked. As irritating as it may be from a management perspective to have staff question your decisions, it is better for you to have the benefit of their input, and have them to know that their opinion does count. You want your people to think about what they’re doing and their role in the creation of successful events.

If you don’t encourage independent thinking on event day, some helpful lawyer may do it for you later, an occasion that could be much more costly for the venue.

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