This interesting fact about the Titanic disaster is a lesson on team building

Stöwer Titanic.jpg

“We are sinking fast. Passengers being put into boats.”

Those were the last words that were transmitted by telegram from the Titanic on April 15, 1912.

At that time the disaster had already unfolded, and a ship that was considered to be unsinkable was soaked up by the freezing water of the Atlantic ocean, pulling more than 1’500 people into death.

We all know what caused this tragedy. The Titanic had collided with an iceberg.

That’s the simple answer.

But what had really happened behind the scenes?

I was curious and did some research.

One interesting fact caught my attention: The radio operators were not part of the crew

The radio operators were the guys who handled all inbound and outbound radio traffic.

They were the Titanic’s window to the outside world.

A critical role? You bet!

The radio operators were employees of Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company, one of the largest phone operators at the time.

They did not belong to the ships’s crew.

More interestingly, their main responsibility was to relay personal messages of the passengers.

Like this one

“I travelled from Liverpool on Monday by the 12 o’clock train to board and arrived at 10 p.m., and I am feeling pretty tired. I am very well, and I am gradually getting settled in my new cabin, which is larger than my last.”

Forwarding weather updates was not their primary concern.

Occasionally, their device would break and they had to dedicate all their attention on getting it fixed. This lead to a huge backlog of personal messages from the passengers.

Naturally, the personal messages were the first to be dispatched once the device was up again.

The absurdity of the situation becomes apparent in a remark from Cyril Evans, radio operator of a ship which was passing the same ice field.

When he warned the Titanic’s staff about the surrounding ice they were about to enter, the operator in charge responded with “shut up”: he was too busy relaying personal messages to the mainland.

Later, the Titanics head operator received another warning message.

It was never delivered to the captain.

Put your team on a mission

The problem is not that the operators were employees of another company. The problem was that they were not on the same mission. Their task was to transmit radio messages.

Not to ensure a safe crossing of the Atlantic.

It is one thing to have someone formally on the team. It’s a different story for someone really owning his position. Feeling the weight of all the responsibility on ones shoulders: “I have to get this right, otherwise we’ll all be in trouble.”

If I were to command the ship, here is what I would tell the radio operator:

Dear radio operator,
You have a very important role on this cruise,
and I want you to know that.
There are icebergs out there. Many of them. A collision can cost us our lives.
That’s why I want you to be on alert for distress messages from other ships.
If you receive any warning, you absolutely must inform me.
If you don’t get through on the radio
I want you to drop EVERYTHING and run to the bridge
and tell me what you’ve heard.

Do you understand?
It’s for your own good.
You want to see your kids and wife again, don’t you?

That is how you create commitment. That is how you create a powerful crew.

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