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Collaborating Means Communicating
Business Journal

Collaborating Means Communicating

by Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller

Captain Kim Sasse and First Officer Jonathan Palmer got along quite well. "I have a good time flying with you," Palmer told Sasse at the controls of American Connection Flight 5966. "Yeah, me too," said Sasse.

The evening flight on October 19, 2004, was a short one from St. Louis to Adair County, Missouri. Thirteen passengers were on board, most of them medical professionals on their way to a conference. The atmosphere in the cockpit was more than relaxed. "Gotta have fun," said Sasse.

In its report on the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted the pilots for not keeping their communications focused enough on the flight.

"That's truth, Man. Gotta have the fun," agreed his co-pilot.

"Too many of these [expletive] take themselves way too serious in this job," said the pilot. "I hate it. I've flown with them and it sucks. A month of [expletive] agony . . . All you want to do is strangle the [expletive] when you get on the ground." He broadcast a burp over the radio.

About 23 minutes before they were scheduled to land, the pilots heard an automated weather report from their destination that visibility was poor because of mist and a heavy overcast.

"We're not getting in," said Sasse.

"Go all this [expletive] way," said Palmer. "Well, let's try it."

"Yeah, we'll try it," replied Sasse. "I don't want to go all the way out here for nothing tonight."

The rest of the flight was a mixture of good teamwork between the two pilots and the same kind of joking that occurred earlier. But while casual conversations are allowed at cruising altitude, they are specifically forbidden as the plane is descending to land. Communication is supposed to be strictly business, with specific roles, phrases, and contingencies.

"We're going into the crap," said Sasse as they descended to the top of the clouds in the darkness.

"Look, ooh, it's so eerie and creepy. [I] get a suffocating feeling when I see that." Palmer made a barking sound.

"I'm drowning," joked the captain.

While much of what the two men communicated followed proper procedures -- the angle of the flaps, confirming the landing gear was down, conducting the prelanding checklist -- they missed several crucial "callouts." In doing so, they confused their roles and made serious errors.

Palmer failed to announce one of the altitude thresholds and announced another incorrectly. The captain was supposed to be leveling off and monitoring the instruments while the first officer looked for the lights of the airport. Sasse was not supposed to switch from the instruments to visually guiding in the plane unless Palmer announced, "Runway in sight." He never did. The plane was descending too fast, below the minimum altitude that Palmer should have called out to the captain. Palmer failed to challenge Sasse's continued descent.

"I can see ground there," said the pilot.

"I can't see [expletive]," said the co-pilot.

The last communications between Sasse and Palmer were their panicked realizations they were about to hit the ground.

"Trees!" said Palmer.

"No. Stop!" blurted out Sasse.

"Oh my God!" exclaimed the co-pilot.

"Holy [expletive]!"

The airplane smashed into a bean field, broke apart, and burst into flames less than two miles from the airport. Both pilots and 11 of their 13 passengers were killed.

In its report on the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted the pilots for, among other things, not keeping their communications focused enough on the flight and failing to make several crucial "callouts" between them. Most of the blame was placed on Sasse for not setting the proper tone inside the cockpit. "Had he emphasized the pilots' goals and strategies as they prepared for the [approach and landing], it is likely that the [Flight 5966] pilots would have suspended their humorous banter and engaged in only operationally relevant conversation below 10,000 feet," stated the report.

Poor communication between the pilots cost the lives of 13 people.

Crucial exchanges

Most collaborators, even many of the best, do not realize the role communication plays in creating a powerful partnership. Of course two people working together must synchronize their efforts to avoid getting their wires crossed. It's obvious that silence can breed misunderstandings. Of course two heads cannot be better than one if the two people do not talk enough to each other. Everyone gets that.

Communication is as much a form of collaboration as the hands-on work between you and your counterpart.

Rarely appreciated, however, is how communicating itself is collaborative, an issue of trust within the larger partnership that surrounds it. Communication is more than a purely functional aspect of working together. Every time two counterparts talk, their relationship changes. What goes on beneath the surface is more important than the information exchanged.

The three statements about communicating that emerged from Gallup's research demonstrate the importance of more than just both people keeping the other informed about what they are doing:

  • We rarely misunderstand each other.
  • We are good listeners for each other.
  • We show appreciation for what the other does.

On a 1-to-5 scale, people in good partnerships average at least 3.6 on these statements, while excellent collaborators score a perfect 5.0. Anything below 2.0 is poor. The most successful collaborators spend enough time communicating to know what the other is thinking, and they encourage each other along the way. The implied motivations behind the messages are crucial.

Communicating is such a major issue that experiments testing cooperation routinely prohibit the two subjects from talking, sending signals, or even seeing each other. Because the best strategy differs so much depending on whether the other person will prove to be friend or foe, our brains latch onto the slightest cues -- smiles, winks, nods, or handshakes -- to assess a counterpart's trustworthiness. These little signals "provide a fast and frugal way" to get a collaboration going. According to one theory, the most cooperative people have superior emotional radar for finding others they can trust, but only if they have the chance to communicate.

It's not just the content, it's the contract that only real conversation creates. In one of the few partner's dilemma experiments that let the players interact, volunteers were separated into four groups. In the first group, counterparts could not communicate with each other. The second could send text messages. The third had a computer-generated voice read their messages back and forth. And in the fourth group, the subjects could hold normal telephone conversations. The closer the communication was to normal human speech, the more the two players trusted each other. Almost all of those allowed to talk by phone quickly agreed to transmit all their points to each other every round and maintained that cooperation until near the end of the game.

A safe testing ground for ideas

From a practical perspective, staying in contact with your partner allows the two of you to be aware of the other's next move, to make your intentions clear, to brainstorm or perhaps stumble onto an idea you would not have had separately, and to share your candid assessments with each other.

More important, the communication is as much a form of collaboration as the hands-on work between you and your counterpart. Although it's unlikely you have said these things directly to your collaborator, the underlying messages of your best discussions are: "I'm trusting you with information I don't reveal elsewhere," "You can count on me to do what I say," and "I will look out for you along the way." Plans the two of you make together reinforce the idea that it is a joint project rather than the work of just one or the other.

When the channels are open, communication between you and your collaborator can become a safe testing ground for new ideas -- half-baked thoughts you would be uncomfortable sharing with less trusted associates. The ability to "think out loud" with someone who will not scoff, who will try to improve on the idea, and who will keep your confidence is a major advantage two people have over one person working alone. One executive reported that before one of his colleagues would say something risky or confidential, he would preface it by saying he was going "on belay."

"Do you have a policy of checking with each other before you do something big?" an interviewer for Fortune magazine asked Dell Chairman Michael Dell and CEO Kevin Rollins at the peak of their success.

"Yeah," they responded in unison.

"When Kevin makes a decision by himself or I make a decision by myself, it's never quite as good as if we make decisions together," said Dell.

Rollins added, "We both sometimes have wacky ideas."

"What's an example of a wacky idea that one of you talked the other out of?" asked the reporter.

"When you have a stupid idea, you don't want to tell everybody," said Rollins.

"At least you were smart enough not to do it," said the journalist.

"That's why we're smart enough not to tell you about it," said Dell.

You won't look stupid if you keep quiet. You can't be burned with information you never reveal.

Silence kills partnerships

Silence creates the opposite effects. You won't look stupid if you keep quiet, and you can't be burned with information you never reveal. Suspicious counterparts administer to themselves a sort of mental Miranda warning, worried that anything they say can and will be used against them. But whether or not you intend to do so, failing to communicate creates a threat in your partner's mind that you are not committed to the collaboration, that you do not trust her, or that you just might make a run for the goal by yourself and claim all the credit. It's much easier to vilify someone who has not explained his motivations, much easier to read into the silence the threat of an unpleasant surprise.

The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 not only showed how close the United States and Soviet Union could come to a nuclear war, but also the sorry state of the communication channels needed to avert it. During one point in the crisis, the Soviet ambassador to Washington had to rely on a bicycle courier to take his urgent messages for Moscow to the local Western Union office.

Thereafter, as much as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. were enemies, through better communications, they were also successful partners in keeping the Cold War cold. The two nations agreed to a "Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communications Line." Portrayed in movies as red telephones in the White House and Kremlin, the actual, more complicated connection (which connects with the Pentagon, not the White House) was instrumental in allowing both countries to signal each other during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and avoid the regional conflict becoming a global one. Several other times during the Cold War, the direct connection played a role in keeping either side from doing something that would escalate to conditions neither wanted.

If a direct communications line was so important to two enemies, how much more important is it to two allies?

"I have learned that it always pays to listen to other crew members," one captain for a major U.S. airline told Gallup. "When I initially brief my first officers, I always invite their participation and encourage them to bring forward their experience. I ask them to tell me when I am in error, particularly when I am not in compliance with rules or regulations. We can disagree on politics or religion or investment strategies, but I find it to be a great advantage to harmonize cockpit views regarding our operations. The only way to do that is to respectfully invite and consider first officers' views. God gave them brains, and I would be a fool not to avail myself of their perspectives."

Communication in a partnership is complicated by the unique and incredible human capacity for reading into a situation what the other person must be thinking. If a chimpanzee sees a man holding a banana, the chimp will hold out its hand to beg for the food. If the man has a bucket over his head (as was done in one experiment), the chimp will still hold out its hand. The animal lacks the capacity to perceive the situation from the man's point of view. Any human, even a child, would recognize that the man with the bucket over his head can't see him begging.

Scientists call it recursive thinking, the two- or three-layered awareness of what your collaborator is experiencing. A comment such as "If you're worried that I'm all worked up about it, don't sweat it. We're cool" is loaded with recursion, but partners can untangle this back-and-forth reasoning quite easily. "Recursion," concluded a psychology professor from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, "is a ubiquitous property of the human mind and possibly the principal characteristic that distinguishes our species from all other creatures on the planet."

We are not mind readers; we are mind guessers. Sometimes we guess wrong.

Recursive thinking is a double-edged sword. There is no sympathy without recursion. A great partner who understands that his colleague is struggling will shoulder more of the burden and offer his support. It's impossible to understand how a collaborator's desire for the goal differs from your own unless you can mentally put yourself in his shoes.

Yet too much recursion and too little discussion inevitably lead to wrong assumptions. Rather than explain their rationale, collaborators routinely assume the other person knows the reasons. Rather than compliment the other person on a good job, partners assume their praise would be redundant. Rather than ask for more information and listen closely, people assume they already know what the other person would say.

Assuming without verifying is dangerous. We are not mind readers; we are mind guessers. Sometimes we guess wrong. This is the reason why in partnerships that involve a risk of death -- such as piloting an airplane, rock climbing, and scuba diving -- the most important messages are mandated and standardized to remove any ambiguity.


At the Play It Again Sports store in Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada, the managers and staff would commonly refer to each other as "kemosabe," a term introduced by the American radio and TV series The Lone Ranger. Part-owner Trevor Muller and his father, who sometimes helped out in the store, called each other "kemosabe" throughout their lives. It came to be a friendly greeting in the store between any two people, whether they were managers, employees, or customers.

But one store employee, Dorothy Kateri Moore, a member of the Mi'kmaq tribe, took offense, and after quitting her job, complained to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. Her complaint led to a lengthy inquiry into why she was offended, what the Mullers meant by using the word "kemosabe," and even into how the fictional Lone Ranger and his Native American partner, Tonto, talked to each other.

"Kemosabe" was a term Tonto first called his partner. Where the scriptwriters got the word is unclear, and its precise meaning varies somewhat in the series. In the pilot episode of the TV series, Tonto says it means "trusty scout." In another episode, Tonto says it means "trusty friend." Although Tonto most often uses the term, sometimes the Lone Ranger uses it in return. "At no time during the episodes reviewed by this inquiry was the term 'kemosabe' ever used in a demeaning or derogatory manner or in any way that might be construed as a racial slur," stated the ruling.

"Tonto is the Lone Ranger's partner and friend," the judge determined. "He is clean cut, well groomed and although he speaks a form of broken English, he is neither dumb nor stupid. To the contrary, his role is to uncover many of the clues upon which the Lone Ranger's strategy is developed." The two men treat each other with respect, and while Native Americans, including Tonto, are often treated in a demeaning manner, the Lone Ranger never treats his counterpart poorly, the review determined. Moore's lawsuit was dismissed, and the decision was upheld by the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal.

As much as the case vindicated the store owner and gave judicial approval to the TV partnership, it also demonstrated the hazards of recursive thinking. The Mullers wrongly assumed that Moore would not be offended by a term that had been bandied about the store for some time. Moore wrongly assumed that the owner and his father were belittling her race.

And the cause of all the trouble was a single word.

The Eight Elements of a Powerful Partnership

Great partnerships don't just happen. Whether your joint mission is to build a successful company, coach a team, improve the government, do something spectacular for a charity, or any other worthy goal, all successful partnerships share the same crucial ingredients. When all these elements combine, partnerships become not just effective in accomplishing the mission, but also personally rewarding, sometimes intensely so.

Complementary Strengths: Everyone has weaknesses and blind spots that create obstacles to reaching a goal. One of the most powerful reasons for teaming up is working with someone who is strong where you are weak, and vice versa. Individuals are not well-rounded, but pairs can be.

A Common Mission: When a partnership fails, the root cause is often that the two people were pursuing separate agendas. When partners want the same thing badly enough, they will make the personal sacrifices necessary to see it through.

Fairness: Humans have an instinctive need for fairness. Because the need for fairness runs deep, it is an essential quality of a strong partnership.

Trust: Working with someone means taking risks. You are not likely to contribute your best work unless you trust that your partner will do his or her best. Without trust, it's easier to work alone.

Acceptance: We see the world through our own set of lenses. Whenever two disparate personalities come together, there is bound to be a certain friction from their differences. This can be a recipe for conflict unless both learn to accept the idiosyncrasies of the other.

Forgiveness: People are imperfect. They make mistakes. They sometimes do the wrong thing. Without forgiveness, the natural revenge motives that stem from friend-or-foe instincts will overpower all the reasons to continue a partnership, and it will dissolve.

Communicating: In the early stages of a partnership, communicating helps to prevent misunderstandings; later in the relationship, a continuous flow of information makes the work more efficient by keeping the two people synchronized.

Unselfishness: In the best working relationships, the natural concern for your own welfare transforms into gratification in seeing your comrade succeed. Those who have reached this level say such collaborations become among the most fulfilling aspects of their lives.


Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller recently completed five years of research identifying and analyzing the crucial dimensions of a successful partnership. Their book, Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life, is the product of that research.

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