The cost of hierarchy in Korea: a story

This is a story told in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers book, summarized by Rod Beckstrom, himself the author of The Starfish and the Spider. It appeared in his newsletter.

Rod Beckstrom: How Korean Air Spiders turned into Starfish in the Cockpit

Gladwell is a wonderful researcher and writer and this is his best book to date. The book reviews social and personal factors that lead to great success. Much success is due to timing. Most of the titans of the railroad industry were born in the 1830’s. They were born early enough to have the creative energy to build a new generation of companies when the time was right, yet they were not so young that they missed the birthing of the railroad industry and all the opportunity that came with it. The same is true of the computer era. Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Steve Jobs were all born in 1954-55, as were many other tech leaders. Timing counts. So does hard work and 10,000 hours of practice. The Beatles became great performers after playing in Hamburg strip joints, 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. “8 days a week…” and many other great Beatles songs came out of the crucible of that intense practice and work.

Tucked inside this excellent book is a jewel of a starfish story. In Chapter 7 Gladwell shares “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.” You see, Korean Air had one of the worst safety records in the world. So many airplanes were crashing that in 1999 Delta Airlines and Air France both suspended their partnerships with Korean Air.

The problem? The majority of airplane crashes occur when the captain is king and no one feels comfortable questioning him (or her). Analyses of airplane accidents demonstrate that most fatal crashes occur after a series of human errors. This series of errors often takes place because of a failure to communicate: a first officer unwilling to share direct concerns with the spider-like captain, or a captain who does not listen. It is dangerous to have a spider in the cockpit. A hierarchy in the cockpit is a bad thing—it creates a “power distance” between the captain and others and blocks the flow of vital and possibly negative information both to the captain flying the plane and to the control tower responsible for helping the plane land safely.

The solution to this dilemma? Turn the spiders in the cockpit into starfish. After years of accidents, in 2000 Korean Air hired American David Greenberg to run its flight operations. Greenberg found deficiencies in the English skills of the Korean pilots. He hired English trainers and introduced language courses. He even demanded that all flight operations in the cockpit be handled in English, because mastering English for radio communications with flight control towers is essential for safety. A surprising and unintended side benefit occurred. When the pilots spoke Korean, they consistently acted within the boundaries of their native hierarchical and deferential culture. However, when they spoke English, they operated in a different and more casual culture. The result? The hierarchy faded away. First officers and others became comfortable sharing with the captain important and even negative information. The language change sparked a cultural shift, turning the cockpit from a spider-like to a more starfish-like environment. As a result, the safety record of Korean Air soared.

For safety’s sake, the next time you’re on a flight, let’s hope there are a few good starfish and not one domineering spider in the cockpit.”

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