Monday, January 11, 2010

Parish plane crashes

Image from here, which is highly relevant.

This was originally going to be a much longer post, but it was verging on the indiscreet, so I've pruned it back. The PCC might get the original version at an away day this year!

One chapter of Gladwell's book Outliers discusses airplane crashes, specifically the way in which human communications in the cockpit directly contribute to a surprisingly high number of catastrophes. Specifically, he talks about something called the 'Power Distance Index' developed by Hofstede which is about the way in which less powerful members of a group accept the inequality of that power relationship. The way in which this led to plane crashes is frightening but very human: Gladwell documents cases where the assisting officers were not direct with the captain of the plane even in situations where catastrophe was imminent, eg the plane wasn't where the captain thought it was, or where it was about to run out of fuel. Instead, the subordinate officers relied on mitigated speech, that is, they weren't direct in telling the captain exactly what was going on, relying on hints, suggestions and euphemisms, which were catastrophically inadequate. Gladwell outlines six levels of mitigated speech, going from the most explicit to the most implicit:
1.Command – “Strategy X is going to be implemented”
2.Team Obligation Statement – “We need to try strategy X”
3.Team Suggestion – “Why don’t we try strategy X”
4.Query – “Do you think strategy X would help us in this situation?”
5.Preference – “Perhaps we should take a look at one of these Y alternatives”
6.Hint – “I wonder if we could run into any roadblocks on our current course”

What Gladwell makes clear is that communication can't simply be analysed in terms of what is said or not said; rather it cannot be abstracted from the political context (ie hierarchy) within which communication takes place. The subordinate officers on the airplane did pass on sufficient information to the captain to make it possible for the captain to change course, if he had been actively listening. Tragically the captain - either from personality or tiredness - didn't hear what was being said. In other words, I don't think that the fault with the plane crashes was simply that the subordinate officers weren't direct enough, there was an equal component where the captain was not receptive enough.

The reason why I was struck by this was because I felt it gave a lot of insight into the 'plane crash' that took place in the parish last year, following my decision to ask the Director of Music to retire. Without going into the messy details, I do think that the nature of communication between the various parties involved was a significant factor, not simply in terms of how explicitly various things were said or not said, but also in terms of what people were able to hear or not hear.

The Korean airline that was the principal subject for Gladwell's analysis managed to change their culture in such a way that they were no longer vulnerable to these catastrophes. What I am pondering now is how to foster the right sort of culture within a parish whereby it is possible to genuinely 'speak truth in love'. I think a large part of the answer has to be modelling the right sort of behaviour myself, which gives permission and space for the truth to be spoken. The two risks to avoid are 'too much truth' - which can become bullying - and 'too much love' - which means that the community simply sags into a morass of niceness.

The good news is that there is a lot of explicit Scriptural guidance on this topic, which I'm going to spend some time studying before the parish away day.

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