“They said what??”

It’s the bearings.  Definitely the bearings.  They didn’t do the maintenance checks on the bearings”

Concrete cancer.  Definitely concrete cancer.  Probably not enough cover to the reo”

“It was the Mafia-supplied concrete.  Had too much sand in it”

I’m talking about the recent partial bridge collapse (well, part of it collapsed entirely) in Genoa, Italy.  I daren’t speculate as to the reason, or reasons, it collapsed, as I’m sure there’s a bunch of people, much smarter than I, who are busy trying to figure that out.

What interested me more though, was the certainty with which immediately after hearing the news, each person at work (experienced engineers I might add) had decided was the cause of the collapse.  It was incredible imagining how, if left unchecked, this idle opinionation would have organically grown into a collective agreement, likely to then spread through the office like grass-fire in a declared drought.

It reminded me of a project I worked on where there were a range of ongoing issues surrounding concrete quality on a large structure, and a lot of engineering effort was being applied to resolving them.

I received a call from my manager in a (relative) panic, stating he’d been advised by a senior executive that our only course of action was to now tear down the entire structure and start again.

I was reasonably certain that that wasn’t the case, but dutifully made some calls to try and untangle the mess and separate the signal from the noise.

After just two phone calls (one went to voice mail), it turns out what someone actually said was, “and in the worst case, we could just pull it down and start again.”

While true, the worst case would be to tear it down and start again, there were ten, maybe a hundred, possibly thousands of alternative options that would have been explored before bringing out the wrecking balls.

It was either this or Miley Cyrus….

It appears that a cognitive ‘disaster’ bias had been triggered, and the executive, possibly distracted in the session, or awash with the technical details, heard the statement, didn’t clarify it, passed it on to another executive, who started making frantic phone calls – to people who weren’t even in the original meeting, who then eventually called me, who also wasn’t in the original meeting.

If reading that paragraph was confusing (deliberately so), it pales into insignificance compared to the confusion caused by this small miscommunication.

Tensions were calmed, the crisis averted, and we carried on without needing to call in the demo crews.  The message had spread like wild fire and had it not been for a quick hose down, could have spread even further, resulting in even more mess to untangle.

Engineers, managers, and even kindergarten kids, are taught about the importance of good communication.  How often have you heard

It was just a breakdown in communication!
– someone who hasn’t properly communicated

Which leads to the Question:  Whose fault is it if your message isn’t properly understood?

Answer: I’m sorry to say, but it’s


If you are the person responsible for delivering a message, whatever it might be, large or small, you are responsible for ensuring it is properly understood.  You must take ownership of the message, and therefore, ownership of the impact of it not being understood.  Does this mean you can only communicate with people who have the exact level of detailed technical knowledge or acumen as you do?  Of course not.  Most of the time in a work environment, the primary reason you’re communicating a message at all is to explain an issue to people who are not at the same knowledge level as you (and remember they can have MORE or LESS knowledge than you).

So why are messages not always properly understood?

Do the people understand what you are saying?  Can they even hear you?  Are they too busy?  Are they distracted?  Have they got a different perspective?  Have you not done a good enough job of aligning their learning style to the way you’re delivering the message?

Unfortunately, it’s likely all of the above, and it’s your responsibility to make sure you clear those obstacles if you want your message to be understood.


I often draw this little image (poorly) when I’m speaking with people about perspective.  Each of these fellows is correct from their point of view, and as managers and leaders, we’d be prudent to consider other people’s perspective more often.

Google “barriers to communication” and you’ll be faced with about 180,000,000 results – most of which say much the same thing.

There’s a sender, there’s a message, there’s a receiver, and there are a bunch of reasons why the message doesn’t always get through.

  • Lack of knowledge about the message
  • Too much use of jargon
  • Lack of interest
  • Speed of dialogue
  • Verbal message differs from non-verbal message
  • Unwillingness to listen
  • Different political / social / business views
  • Boring message
  • Emotional state
  • Poor environment in which the message is being communicated

When you’ve got an important message, or any message actually, to communicate, it will never be time ill spent if you stop and consider some of the above before you deliver it.

In fact it’s your JOB to consider these things.

The more important the message, the more time you should spend on thinking about how, where, and when to deliver it, and most importantly, the ‘who’ you are delivering to.

Will you ever get a perfect alignment between sender and receiver?  Likely not.  But would you prefer 5 or 85% of the message to get through?

If you consider your 6 might in fact be a 9, then you’re light years ahead of those who don’t, and your message is far more likely to get through.

For the record, I think it was the bearings…..


Have you ever been part of a workplace game of Chinese Whispers?  How did it end?  Have you got an example of where re-framing your message to suit the audience separated the signal from the noise?  Leave a message below – we’d love to hear!

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