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3 Historical Cases of Miscommunication | LiquidPlanner

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3 Historical Cases of Miscommunication

Small mistakes can lead to huge blunders. The same can be said of the little bits of miscommunication that happen among your team members and leaders at work. The consequences of neglecting a tight communication process is high risk business.

To showcase our point, we’re going to look at three historical events where miscommunication had deadly consequences.

The unopened message: Battle of Trenton, 1776

miscommunication in business

Image via Flickr by Yortw

In the American War of Independence, the famous Battle of Trenton was fought between George Washington and his American troops, and Johann Rall and his Hessian regiments (these were German soldiers hired to fight for the British Empire).

There were a lot of war tactics that led to Washington’s victory, but there’s a curious story that centers around an inattentive Rall (who, frankly, seemed to prefer partying to fighting). When a spy handed him a note of the American whereabouts, Rall put it in his coat pocket and never read it. The note was found after he died, in the Trenton battle.

Tragic process snaffu: The Tenerife airport disaster, 1977


In 1977, two Boeing 747s collided at the Tenerife North Airport in the Canary Islands, with high casualties.

A thick cloud lay across the island that night, making it difficult for air traffic controllers to see what was happening on the ground. When the Dutch pilot heard “you are clear” from air traffic control, he took off down the runway without realizing he needed a second clearance. At the same time, a Pan Am flight was taxiing onto the runway. The two planes collided, launching blazing debris as far as 100 feet into the air.

Royal miscommunication! Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854


The Charge of the Light Brigade took place during the Crimean War, between Russian forces and the British light cavalry (lightly armed and armored troops on horseback). Due to a miscommunication in the chain of command and a series of gaffs thereafter, the Light Brigade rode directly into a heavy artillery battle scene – which they weren’t suited for.

The result: brutally high casualties. (And a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.)

Historical accounts say that when the original order was relayed to the troops, it lacked insight into the bigger picture or purpose of their strategy. It was also one of those miscommunications that became so convoluted, no one exactly who gave what orders and why. For years after the war, some of the higher-ups continued to point fingers and mitigate themselves of responsibility.

Most of us don’t go into battle on horseback, but this kind of miscommunication happens within teams and companies all the time, especially bigger companies where message origination gets lost in the shuffle – and no one steps up to clarify the strategy.

Miscommunication between your team members probably doesn’t lead to catastrophes like these, but they can have a negative impact on business performance – and the business.

So how do you eliminate – or reduce – miscommunication? If you’re a team leader, start by asking your team the kinds of questions that expose where the knowledge gaps are. And then, get talking.


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