Communication… A Leading Cause of Human Error


Human error is ubiquitous, and it is actually predictable. The term human error came in to focus in the early 1980’s in the aviation industry. Everyone has probably heard of the phrase, “pilot error”, as pilot error is attributed to approximately 70% of all aircraft mishaps.

Commercial aviation is one of the safest modes of transportation according to the National Safety Council’s 2008 “odd-of-dying” table. In that table, the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident where 1 in 98 for a lifetime compared to only 1 in 7,178 for dying in an aviation mishap!

However, if that accident does occur, it has a higher percentage of being attributed to pilot error… around 70%. What we don’t realize is that those same percentages of error occur ANYTIME their is human-to-human or human-to-machine interfaces. This same 70% rate of error occurs in every profession.

In the medical industry deaths due to error has resulted in the equivalent of at least one jumbo jet crashing killing everyone aboard weekly! If jumbo jets where crashing weekly there will be a public outcry! Unfortunately, when one person dies due to a medical error, it only affects their immediate love ones and it doesn’t make the news like a plane crash killing hundreds at one time.

The same is true in business, we don’t sum up the actual costs of human error but treat them as just “one off” incidences and not a systemic problem. Therefore we neglect to address the issue with the appropriate investment of resources.

A lot! If we only look at errors in business from the perspective of employee engagement it is costing US companies between $450-$550 billon a year according to a recent Gallup survey.

Let’s define human error: human error is an action or inaction by an individual or individuals that leads to a deviation from mission, organizational intentions, or expectations.

In my over 25 years in the human performance field there are several unique contributors that play a significant role in human error. The most common contributor to human error across all environments is communication.

I believe George Bernard Shaw sums up why communication leads to human error in his quote…

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Behavioral scientist Dr. Taibi Kahler discovered that each of us posses a unique perceptional language. It is those differences in our unique perceptions that causes a change in the an idea from a sender to the receiver. What he discovered was so operationally effective that NASA used his techniques for the selection, placement and training of the Space Shuttle astronauts.

The six unique perceptions are;

  • Thoughts – they prize data and information
  • Actions – they prize adaptability and self sufficiency
  • Inactions – they prize privacy and their own space
  • Emotions – they prize family and relationships
  • Opinions – they prize loyalty and commitment
  • Reactions – they prize spontaneity and creativity

Understanding and recognizing these perceptions in others is instrumental in the foundation of effective communication. Click here to learn more.

Once you have an understanding how to connect with an individual’s unique perception here are some tools to ensure you are really listening;

  • Focus on the talker’s point of view…from their unique perception
  • Have a willingness to explore diverse points of view
  • Don’t initially agree or disagree
  • Allow them to make their point
  • Keep an open mind by suspending any assumptions
  • Be aware that your own way isn’t always the best way
  • Control your emotion and minimize theirs through understanding their unique perception.
  • Communicate with composure or passively participate
  • Show genuine interest and curiosity in the talker and their subject.
  • Encourage discussion through;
    • Engaged body language
    • Verbal acknowledgements such as paraphrasing, summarizing and asking probing questions that elaborate or clarify to better understand their unique perceptions
    • Ask powerful questions , not vague but be specific

Effective communication is the critical key to reducing human error, which leads to effective leadership, increased employee engagement and ultimately increased profitability.

QUESTION: Will you share a story where what appeared to be a clear expectation resulted in a conflict?


David Kaiser
David Kaiser
DAVE is a retired Navy Commander and current CEO and founder of H2H Dynamics, an authentic leadership training and advisory company that focuses on the essential human to human dynamics that determine successful business, team and personal performance. He served as a Naval Officer and Aviator where he flew 46 combat sorties during Desert Storm. He was one of the officers in charge of the Navy and Marine Corps elite Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training program where he was first exposed to human dynamics under extremely stressful conditions. In the corporate sector Dave was the Chief Learning Officer for a major defense contractor where he was responsible for all human performance training for the U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command, NATO, NASA, foreign militaries, and various Fortune 500 companies. He directly applied latest research in the fields of learning psychology, human performance, and neuroscience. Additionally Dave lead a three year research study for the United States Air Force Research Laboratory to determine the most effective training interventions to improve human performance of tactical aircrew members. During this research project he discovered the human performance tool used for NASA’s Astronaut selection for the Space Shuttle program and became one of the few people qualified to use the tool. From this research Dave co-authored two published papers at the Interservice/ Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference in 2008 (Best Paper Nominee) and again in 2010.

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    • Good one and supposedly a true story from WWI radio communication error.
      Lieutenant A., in charge of one end of the British line told the private in front to pass the word along to Lieutenant B.: “We are going to advance, can you send us reinforcements?” When Lieutenant B. received the message it was like this: “We are going to a dance, can you lend us three and fourpence?”