The ‘plane’ truth

Avantika Sinha
Sep 04, 2012

In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell relates the case study of how Korean airlines turned around their safety record.

Between 1988 and 1998 Korean airlines had a loss rate of 4.79 per million departures – 17 times higher than a typical American carrier like United Airlines over the same period. It was one of the most infamous safety records in the world and became a source of national shame. However since 1999 its safety record is spotless and in 2006 it was given the Phoenix Award by Air Transport World in recognition of its transformation.

David Greenberg, who was hired to turn things around, made one crucial but puzzling change – he incurred huge training costs and changed the language of conversation of the pilots and crew to English. It was mandated that they speak to each other in a language they were uncomfortable with.

Greenberg realized that a lot of the crashes were happening because co-pilots were not articulating their point of view due to a hierarchical culture. Crashes were more likely to happen when captains were at the wheel than when co-pilots were even though Captains are generally far more experienced pilots. This was deduced to be because if a co-pilot was flying and missed something the captain would not hesitate in pointing it out but if the captain was flying and missed something the co-pilot would respectfully (or fearfully) hold back from offering his point of view. Countries with a highly hierarchical culture have the worst flight safety records and countries with the flattest structures have the best.

Greenberg realized that in order for co-pilots to speak directly they had to get past their cultural traditions of hierarchy and seniority and by communicating in English rather than Korean they were able to construct almost a new identity for the relationship. This allowed them, to a much greater extent, circumvent the cultural discourse they had grown up in.

And of course the same trend is likely to show up in our organizations too. If loyal, engaged managers want to make a contribution to their company – sometimes the best way to demonstrate loyalty is not by following the norm and going along with the flow but by trusting your boss and telling him what he needs to know, even if it means challenging his judgment – so that you can support him in doing his job effectively.