The Power Distance Index and safe flying

For all my working life, I have been lucky enough to work for international companies. I say “lucky” because this working lifestyle has enabled me to visit many other countries and meet people from different – sometimes very different – backgrounds compared with my own. I think that this has given me a different perspective on the world and on life and on people’s behavior.

Some time ago, I mused on how meetings have different protocols in different countries. This knowledge has been useful, enabling me to get the best out of business meetings in different places. Of late, I have turned my attention to the general topic of how people interact with one another in a working context …

When I am not working or pursuing one of my hobbies [or sleeping], I like to be entertained. I watch very little TV, much preferring live performances when I can get to them. I also read. I am not a fast reader, but grab reading time when I can. In particular, I get a lot of reading done when I am traveling. I am very attached to my Kindle. I do not tend to write about my reading experiences here, as I keep a dedicated book blog elsewhere. But, I would like to make an exception. I am currently reading Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.

This is a fascinating book, which is broadly about social anthropology. It looks at the factors that lead people – or groups of people – to be successful. In the process, it also suggests circumstances when failure is the likely outcome.

The main premise is that someone’s success is driven by a selection of factors, but the time and location of a person’s birth, along with their family background are really key. There are numerous, detailed examples, which I found very compelling, of the process whereby various people [New York lawyers and Bill Gates are examples] found their success.

Although I found all of that interesting, I was even more intrigued by an example of failure. Why do planes crash? The answer is that they do not crash very often, but, when they do, there are some interesting factors that come into play. A specific example was Korean Air, who once had a terrible safety record. Their loss rate was much higher than a typical airline, even though they had aircraft that were just as up to date and well maintained and staff that were well trained. It turned out to be the result of how the flight crew responded and interacted under stressful conditions.

A guy called Geert Hofstede came up with a measure of how important social status is in a particular society – the Power Distance Index [PDI]. It is unsurprising to hear that PDI varies a lot across the world. Countries at the high end include Malaysia, Guatemala, Panama, Philippines, Mexico, and Venezuela. At the low end we have Ireland, New Zealand, Denmark, Israel, and Austria. A high PDI implies that junior people will be very deferential to their superiors. For example, on an airplane the First Officer is less likely to question the decisions and actions of the Captain. In a low PDI country, flying a plane would be seen as more of a team effort.

Korea has quite a high PDI and studies indicated that there was a significant problem with staff relations in the cockpit. When this matter was addressed with further training, the safety issue was very effectively resolved.

I have learned two things that I will apply to my future air travel:

  • Always try to fly with an airline whose flight crew are from a low PDI country.
  • Breathe a sigh of relief when the Captain announces, as they commonly do, that the First Officer will be flying the plane. [Because, regardless of PDI, the Captain is always more likely to be on the First Officer’s case than vice versa.]

At the time of writing, the news is dominated by two recent disasters:

  • The unexplained loss of flight MH370. We may never know exactly what happened, but I observe that Malaysia has the world’s highest PDI.
  • The sinking of a ferry on a routine route in Korea. Korea has a fairly high PDI and I understand that the Captain, First Officer and other crew members have been arrested. I will be interested to hear the outcome of inquiries.

My thoughts are with the families of the victims of these disasters.

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