Communications Lessons from Aviation: When "Rogering" People is Good Business Practice

Just a few days ago I ordered some printing work by email. My message was sent but there was never any acknowledgment of the order or notification that the work was done. In the end I had to ask if they had received the file. But suppose it had been urgent and my mail had not been delivered? Acknowledging messages is such an obvious good idea that I used to wonder why some people don’t do it. In some cases it is probably a mix or carelessness and too much work; in other cases there is a cultural element (more about that later). Whatever the reason my advice is that you should confirm receipt of most but not all messages, and that in some cases you need to confirm your understanding by “reading back” the key messages in your own words.

These are lessons that I have borrowed from the world of aviation where the consequences of misunderstandings can be fatal, so over the years the authorities have developed some very effective practices. Communications, in particular, are regulated by very strict guidelines that are laid down in the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Manual of Radiotelephony, which you can read online at There are a few messages, it explains, where you do not need to respond, but in most cases you are required to at least acknowledge receipt, usually done by saying “Roger” because when the rules were first made roger was the phonetic alphabet word for “R”, the accepted abbreviation for “received”. This just means that you have heard the message. For more critical communications like air traffic control clearances it is obligatory for pilots to read back the clearance. This both proves that they heard and that they understood correctly.

Transferring these concepts to business email, the kind of message that does not need any reply is a thank you message, a newsletter or other non critical communications. Messages that need at least an acknowledgment of receipt include things like orders, or cancellations of meetings. And situations where a full readback is advisable are in situations like critical meetings where it is important that you have read and understood. So, for example, when you are invited to a meeting next Tuesday it is good practice to reply that you will attend but also to restate the date and time in another way – perhaps the day of the month instead of “next Tuesday” so that if there is any misunderstanding the other person will spot the mistake and correct it.

Everyone should be confirming messages that need it, but many do not and in some cases there is a cultural reason. People from cultures where people prioritize schedules rather than relationships – cultures described as sequential or monochronic – people tend to assume that since everything will happen as planned they do not need to confirm it. So, for example, the Swiss Railways would never announce that the 10:15 to Zurich will leave on time because it is taken for granted. But this thinking works only when communications are perfect; add a risk of messages being lost and even the Swiss Railways need to check that the message was received. Today there are many reasons why an email or sms could be missed so a response can avoid some potentially serious mistakes.

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