WHEN WE IGNORE CULTURE, PLANES CRASH ON MOUNTAINS

Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers, explores the striking relationship between culture and plane crashes. He states, “…For a long time it’s been clear that if you have two people operating the airplane cooperatively, you will have a safer operation than if you have a single pilot flying the plane and another person who is simply there to take over if the pilot is incapacitated...” Mr. Gladwell cites historical instances where plane crashes were directly attributable to “mitigated speech” and other communication incapacitations due to High Power Distance (HPD) cultures. There are studies that have reaffirmed the positive relationship between HPD cultures and plane crashes, finding additionally, that cultures that rank low on the power distance index and high on individualism report significantly lower plane crashes. There are studies that have reaffirmed the positive relationship between HPD cultures where cultures that had high ranking of individualism reported significantly lower plane crashes.


Power distance index is one of Geert Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions. Hofstede and his colleagues came up with several dimensions of culture including power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism, and masculinity. If a country ranks high in power distance, there is strict observance of hierarchy of the social stratifications. The order of inequality is pronounced and one's place in society is known and accepted. In a low power distance society, everyone expects to be listened to regardless of rank and manifestations of rank may even be shunned. Power distance tends to go along with individualism versus collectivism. Individualism and collectivism refer to the extent to which people prefer to live with a strong sense of personal identity or group identity respectively.


In Kenya there has been no study to measure Hofstede's cultural dimensions. However, there are signifiers. A classic example is the common use of emergency probe lights for preferential road treatment by Kenyan politicians and other perceived or actual power-mongers. The issue is such that police have had to issue warnings to some SUV owners for using these lights illegally. Additionally, many politicians will be accompanied by an appointed convoy whereas in the Netherlands, the Prime Minister rides to work on a bicycle. The Kenyan “mwenye nguvu mpishe” road culture, I posit, is an indicator of a high power distance culture. Its merits or demerits aside, we need to consider how this translates to company culture and whether there are risks that could arise in your company as a result of a high power distance culture.


For Employers and Business Owners

As an employer or a business owner, one needs to be aware of risks and exposures that may arise because of this culture. Employees are generally prone to passivity in a high power distance culture as managers are the decision-makers and instruction givers. Their job descriptions are well defined with limited discretion. Information is cascaded from top management to junior staff on a need-to-know basis and there is communication red tape for upstream feedback. This may lead to issues particularly on knowledge-based organisations; say a law firm where the juniors need to learn continually and where better access to information significantly improves the quality of work.


Such cultures are also prone to abuse of power and are conducive for the creation of hostile work environments. This is likely to result in labour related legal disputes such as sexual assault. A study by Vipachi Mishra found that participants primed with high power distance were more tolerant of sexual harassment and perceived these behaviours as less severe in comparison to those who were primed with low power distance. This is because managerial power-mongers remain unchecked and do not need to justify themselves from allegations brought forward by their juniors. Moreover, business owners may not interact well with the juniors to address their concerns. Unethical practices, therefore, go undetected or ignored for a long time, until the metaphorical plane crashes on a mountain via a legal suit. Other unethical behaviour is also likely to thrive. If a junior employee is unable to question a supermarket manager about the questionable loss of inventory or junior police is unable to question her assignment fraud, human rights violations will be more likely to occur in the respective cases.


On the flip side, decisions may be made faster in the HPD cultures since there is not too much debate and can therefore in certain circumstances be advantageous. However, for instance, in legal practice where a decision may depend on varying interpretations, it may be disadvantageous to base decisions on the rank of the opinion maker as opposed to the veracity of their claim.


For Employees

As an employee, one needs to be more aware of these cultural dimensions when working across different countries, companies, or professions. Being dismissive of these power relations could affect how effective you are at work and it is not enough to criticise the culture, but rather learn how to work around it to be able to be effective at your job.

When working in a low power distance company, one may need to be more outspoken in order to communicate effectively. The plane crash pilots in Gladwell's study were mostly pilots from high power distance cultures unable to communicate effectively in the LPD cultures. One should also learn not to personalise perceived criticism from persons in such environments or consider it as impoliteness.


When shifting from an LPD culture to an HPD culture, one also needs to adjust accordingly. An increased dose of perceived civility and mitigated communication may be inefficient but can work for many occasions. It will reduce friction and make day-to-day work more productive.


Generally, the LPD-HPD dimension lies in a broad and dynamic spectrum. One may find themselves shifting across these dimensions and it is therefore in one's interest to identify what applies to a given situation and fluidly move within the spectrum. High cultural sensitivity and intelligence will serve both your personal and business interests. For business leaders or employers, it is a call to assess their company culture in order to see if its LPD-HPD dimensions serves the organization’s objectives or is there a plane crash waiting to happen.

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