by Steve Adubato, PhD

We’ve talked about how common it is for the message you send not to be the one that is received. In fact, miscommunication like this is a lot more common than being understood as you intended.

Consider the case of former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christie Whitman, who testified this past week before Congress regarding her leadership and communication surrounding 9/11 and the air quality at Ground Zero. Much has been written and said about the fact that the EPA communicated that the air was “safe” in New York and that rescue workers on “the pile” had no reason to fear. Christie Whitman this week once again insisted that’s not what she said six years ago and argued that she made every attempt then to communicate as clearly as possible that rescue workers needed to wear respirators to protect themselves.

Consider this September 18, 2001 statement made by Whitman on official EPA stationary saying; “I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington D.C. that their air is safe to breathe.”

After the fact, Whitman said that she was only referring to the general public in New York and not rescue workers. Whitman insisted that her communication was clear and that there was a distinction being made between the air quality in Manhattan versus that at Ground Zero. Many, including rescue workers who are suffering serious respiratory ailments that they believe were a direct result of the toxic air quality at Ground Zero, shouted during Whitman’s Congressional testimony; “Whitman lied—people died!”

I’m not convinced that Christie Whitman lied, but her communication was confusing and contradictory. Some questions to consider.

Q—How could Christie Whitman or any leader, particularly in such a difficult and emotional time after 9/11, be sure that people received the message exactly as they intended?

A—You can never be sure, but great leaders do everything humanly possible to break down communication barriers and clarify confusion. They must follow up and be assertive. They must say what the consequences of ignoring an official directive are. The EPA may have documents in their files saying that there was some distinction between the scientific testing of the air quality in Manhattan versus that at Ground Zero, but that is more about covering one’s back. I’m talking about leaders communicating in a definitive and uncompromising manner.

Q—But even if Christie Whitman had said that the air quality at Ground Zero wasn’t safe, wouldn’t rescue workers still have insisted on doing that heroic job?

A—Probably, but that is not the point. A great leader, even under the most difficult of circumstances, sometimes has to protect people from themselves and their own emotions. A leader must step back and look at the situation objectively and realize that people may be putting themselves at risk and must do everything humanly possible must be done to stop that—even if you become the target of ridicule and criticism.

Q—Assume that you are correct about Christie Whitman. What could she do now to rectify the situation?

A—You can’t rewrite history. You can’t take back your public communication, particularly in the critical days after 9/11. But what Whitman could do is take responsibility for what happened and say that she can understand people being confused about her public statements regarding the air quality in Manhattan being “safe” versus at Ground Zero. Instead, Whitman appears to be shifting blame and got particularly angry and agitated with people implying that she “lied” about the air quality. Being indignant about defending yourself in the face of tremendous evidence that you probably made a significant error in the way you communicated in a stressful situation is a questionable strategy indeed.