As companies grapple with the challenges of delivering training to a culturally and ethnically diverse employee base, many a times, cultural nuances are sacrificed at the altar of standardization. While there are plenty of success stories of how multinational companies run their global outposts with a great degree of cultural adaptation, it’s pretty daunting when you actually size the scale of challenges that culture brings to the table when it comes to training.
In his book, Outliers – The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell, makes a series of very interesting observations about events around us (In fact, this book is a qualitative cousin of Freakonomics!). The book has an entire chapter dedicated to the theory of how ethnicity and culture plays a critical role in airplane crashes.
Gladwell explains the concept of “Mitigated Speech”. It refers to an attempt to downplay or sugarcoat the real meaning of what is being said. Historically, air crashes seem to happen more often when the captain is flying the plane rather than the first officer. It so happens that when the first officer is in control of the flight, the captain does not hesitate to speak up if he sees the first officer making a mistake. Apparently, it’s not the case the other way around because of the hierarchy and power equation. According to Gladwell, combating “mitigated speech” is a huge issue and every major airline has what is called “Crew Resource Management” training, designed to teach junior crew members how to communicate clearly without beating around the bush.
Gladwell then goes on to explain “Hofstede’s Dimensions”, one of the most widely used concepts in crosscultural psychology. One of the most important dimensions identified by Hofstede is what is called the “Power Distance Index” (PDI). It’s a measure of how cultures values authority. It so happens that there is a direct correlation between the number of air crashes with PDI. The higher the PDI, the greater are the chances that the cabin crew communication is affected by mitigated speech, resulting in disasters. When first officers see that the pilot is making a mistake, they aren’t assertive and are vague in putting the point across.
Gladwell then adds another key element to his argument. He brings up the concept of “linguistic orientation”. In certain cultures, like those in Asia, it’s up to the listener to make sense of what is being said while in western cultures, communication is always the responsibility of the speaker or it is “transmitter oriented”. Imagine a training class conducted by an American employee to a bunch of Korean employees or the other way around without regard to cultural differences. I will leave it to your imagination! In fact this funny clip from one of my favorite british comedies will help you. Enjoy!
PS: I had to use the corny title as its Thanksgiving. My sincere thanks to all my family, friends, colleagues, and business partners that continue to tolerate my blogs 🙂