Leadership Hack; Talking to Aussies vs Koreans

Dealing with inherent authority gradients.

As an airline captain in Asia, I deal with two very different communication landscapes. The first is on the flight deck; an environment containing assertive, highly trained professionals often from western countries.

The second is the cabin landscape; occupied by intelligent, well trained crew, generally from Asian countries, and mostly younger than me.

‘Hofstede’s Power Distance Index’ describes attitudes towards hierarchy, and in particular how much a particular culture respects authority. Those countries with high PDIs (Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Hong Kong) have an innate respect for authority, and are not naturally inclined to question it. This leads to the highly organised, civilised and respectful cultures we experience in parts of Asia, but is not really that useful in an emergency on an airliner!

Those countries with low PDIs (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) are quite the opposite; they are more than happy to tell their boss he is a giant screw-up! (As hard as this may be on my ego, I need this!)

So…how do we deal with these differences in our workplace?

Well, you can do nothing. Speak to everyone the same way. Use the same body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice; whatever comes naturally, just do that. But realise by doing so, you will never see the full potential of your team.

Here’s what I do:

I start with the goal. What am I trying to achieve in each 'landscape'?

On the flight deck, I want a casual, easygoing atmosphere which is also highly professional. I want to make sure we are all aiming for excellence and that we are constantly preparing for contingencies, but that we all have a ‘good day at the office’.

For the cabin, I want to know that the '20+ year old female South Korean junior flight attendant' seated way down the back of the jet will not hesitate to pick up the inter phone and call me if she has a safety concern.

For me, this is the biggest communication problem I have; for this cabin crew member, no matter how highly trained she is, she will need to overcome some significant natural tendencies to be willing to call me up.

History is littered with tragic accidents where cabin crew and pilots, even those from the same culture as the captain, have not brought up safety concerns in a timely manner. In essence, they preferred to die rather than suffer that angry captain berating them for the interruption.

So, with the stated goal for each landscape, I adjust my behaviour. Especially in the critically short time period I have when my crew are forming their first impressions of me.

For the cabin crew, when I stand up on the bus to give my brief, my REAL goal is not to communicate the weather or the flight time (although that is required), but to ensure that by the time we board the jet, they feel empowered to interrupt me, to call out an error, to offer a suggestion.

So, my brief is tailored towards this goal. Gentle tone of voice, facial expressions designed to transmit empathy (smiling, raised inner eyebrows, slight tilting of the head), and maybe a couple of bad jokes thrown in as well. I know that there is very little risk of forcing the authority gradient too flat…my position as captain makes it very easy to steepen the gradient if required. (For example, when issuing direct instructions during an emergency.)

For the pilots, I have found that if I start off too casual, it’s very difficult steepen the gradient afterwards. So, I start off as a ‘friendly but straight-laced’ kind of guy, putting everyone into a relaxed but professional frame of mind before the flight. In my experience, it’s very easy to flatten the authority gradient with the pilots during the subsequent hours. Quite the opposite to the situation with the cabin crew! If I start off as a grumpy, stern captain with the cabin crew, I’ll never recover.

The diversity found in multi-cultural teams can be a huge advantage but there are differences, like those measured by the Power Distance Index, which a leader needs to manage in order to maximise team performance.

Very interested to hear how authority gradients affect communication in your workplace!

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