What We’ve Got Here . . .

Communication Failures and How to Avoid Them

You’ve probably heard someone change the tone of their voice and say, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” It’s an oft-quoted line from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke. It’s a mood lightening way people will acknowledge that a breakdown in communication has occurred.

As the story goes, Lt. Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese soldier during WWII, was sent to Lubang Island in the Philippines to conduct guerrilla warfare. His commander’s orders were to continue guerilla tactics and not die. Shortly after arriving on the island, Allied forces took the island and Hiroo was forced into hiding with his team. Hiroo ignored communication attempts by Philippine locals, leaflets, and other media that the war was over. He was convinced they were all ploys by the Allies to lure him out of hiding. For nearly three decades, Hiroo hid while his team abandoned him or died.

It wasn’t until 1974 that Hiroo finally emerged from the jungle and surrendered when his former commanding officer went to the Philippines to personally rescind the order not to surrender or die. The Philippine government granted a full pardon for Hiroo’s actions, and he was allowed to return to Japan.

I saw a meme once with a picture of khaki pants and the caption, “I lost my khakis. Below the pants is a caption that reads, “What it means in Boston,” and it displays a set of car keys.

Some miscommunication is minor and even amusing.

In Hiroo’s case, miscommunication, in that of the many failed attempts to convince him the war was over, cost 30 Philippine citizens and 2 Japanese soldiers their lives.

It is likely that your breakdowns in communication won’t lead to more than 30 people dying, and you’ll likely have something more tragic than confusion over pants and keys.

How can you minimize miscommunication in your workplace?

Active Listening: Listen to what is said, take note of what isn’t said, watch the body language of the person talking, and be present in the conversation. You’ll often learn just as much from recognizing what isn’t said and hearing with your eyes by watching the person speaking. Avoid glancing at your watch, checking your phone, or other distractions.

Clarify Expectations: Be specific about the outcomes you expect. If you want to receive a report to review before it is submitted, don’t just tell someone to email you the report before they submit. Make sure they know you want to review it before it is submitted. Ask for questions.

Be Accessible: Your staff needs to know how to get in touch with you. An “Open Door Policy” doesn’t just mean your office door is open. You have to be able to be reached by the people who need to get in touch with you. This is relevant both to the staff who report to you and the staff to whom you report.

Be Concise: Get to the point and stop.

Question: What are you doing to reduce communication failures? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


I am an author, speaker, and leader with a passion for developing people into practical leaders who put their principles into practice. I am the co-author of the acclaimed book Faith Acts with best-selling author Dillon Burroughs, the Chief Operations Officer at the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, and an independent leadership consultant to up and coming leaders and start up nonprofit organizations. My greatest joy, however, is serving Christ and his Church. I am the proud husband of Shay and father of two great boys. We live in Chattanooga, TN. #NoogaStrong

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive, off-topic, or downright annoying.

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