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How Your National Origin Can Impact Your Performance....

I've talked in the past about how I was raised.  I was lucky enough to be raised by some great parents who gave me everything I needed to be successful, and were patient when I acted like a punk.  So thanks to Kent and Deanna for doing it all. 

With that said, looking back, I think there was one element to my upbringing that was positive andOutliers negative at the same time.  The Dunn family valued privacy to the extreme, which was positive for me in the sense that I'm built to give people a lot of space and not judge too quickly.  Where is that negative?  As I grew up, I had career and life situations that demanded assertiveness that was, at times considered by me to be, a possible invasion of privacy on the target.  Following up on an interview (as a candidate), for example, was very hard for me early in my career.  The privacy angle was so deep in my DNA that I would delay that type of aggressive behavior that was, at times, expected by the target audience.

Over time, I've learned to manage that part of my background, and the positives to valuing privacy still outweigh the negatives.

Why is this on my mind? I'm slowly making it through Outliers from Malcolm Gladwell, and he's got an unbelievable chapter on "Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes".  Here's a summary from Gladwell from an interview in Fortune on what he focuses on in this chapter:

"Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s. When we think of airline crashes, we think, Oh, they must have had old planes. They must have had badly trained pilots. No. What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.

But Boeing (BA, Fortune 500) and Airbus design modern, complex airplanes to be flown by two equals. That works beautifully in low-power-distance cultures [like the U.S., where hierarchies aren't as relevant]. But in cultures that have high power distance, it’s very difficult.

I use the case study of a very famous plane crash in Guam of Korean Air. They’re flying along, and they run into a little bit of trouble, the weather’s bad. The pilot makes an error, and the co-pilot doesn’t correct him. But once Korean Air figured out that their problem was cultural, they fixed it."

Gladwell talks a lot in this chapter about the "Power Distance Index" (PDI), which can be defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but defined from below, not from above. It suggests that a society’s level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders. 

Now for the translation  If a person is from a country with a high PDI score, they're more likely to defer to authority, even when they know something is going horribly wrong.  Why?  Because it is essentially culturally imbedded in that person to never challenge another person in an authority position.  In the case of the pilots in Gladwell's example, the co-pilots deferred to the authority figure in the cockpit to the extent that it cost them their lives and the lives of hundreds of passengers.  Korean Airlines fixed the safety issues related to the PDI by creating a new culture separate from the high PDI Korean culture.  Read the book to find out how.

Interested in which countries have the highest and lowest PDIs?  Here you go:

High PDI (means the cultures defer to authority and are much less likely to challenge bad decisions if authority figures are involved): Malaysia (104), China (80), Indonesia (78) and the Phillipines (94). And so the norm in such countries is for leaders to be highly respected, for people not to ask embarrassing questions, and for students and subordinates to listen.

Low PDI countries are those which prefer, or are used to having a small power distance between the boss and the workers. These countries are Australia (36), New Zealand (22), Ireland (28) and the Austria (11). The norm here is for leaders to be accessible, to be at the same level as their subordinates, and to be open to challenge and suggestions.

The USA?  Comes in pretty low on the PDI at a 40. 

The message with all this is not that talent from a country with a high PDI can't be high performers, because there are many high performers from these countries.  Instead, the message is that based on your cultural heritage, you may run into situations where you need to be painfully aware of the culture you were raised in, and force yourself to challenge authority and engage more aggressively than you were raised to.

Virtual hat tip to two people.  Jessica Lee, who pointed out to me some PDI issues to me in the whole pay transparency debate, and Jason Seiden, who named the PDI index and gave a description before I could tell him what it was.  Smart folks.

Kind of like me coming from the private world of the Dunns.  For years, I had to force myself to aggressively ask for a drink refill at a restaurant - my own personal PDI of sorts.  I've overcome that and, as a result, I'm always hydrated.

Comments

Michael D. Haberman, SPHR

The Power Distance Index is one dimension of Geert Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions. http://www.geert-hofstede.com/ He ranks countries around the world on PDI, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainity Avoidance and Long-term Orientation. The world's average scores on these dimensions are 55-43-50-64-45 and the US scores 40-91-62-46-29. In order this means the US has a higher level of equality; very highly individualistic; high gender differentiation thus pushing women to become more assertive and competitive; a higher tolerance of a variety of ideas; and lastly, low LTO ranking is indicative of the societies' belief in meeting its obligations and tends to reflect an appreciation for cultural traditions.

It is very interesting stuff and certainly something all HR pros should be aware of, especially those in multi-cultural work situations.

Rob Russell

While I don't really argue Gladwell's workplace insights and conclusions, I do have to take particular exception to his theoretical anecdote about airline safety.

I'm a pilot myself, and I feel that what Gladwell implies about crew resource management is incredibly superficial, near-sighted, oversimplified, reactionary, unconstructive, misdirective and oversensationalized.

I wouldn't hesitate to step on to a Korean Air flight for fear of safety, but I would jump at the opportunity to fly on any non-US airline, as most other cultures still maintain an environment of professionalism, class and customer service that is abhorrently lacking in US airports and airlines.

Before drawing any conclusions about Gladwell's use of that theoretical anecdotal example of an alleged cockpit crew resource management breakdown, I hope you'd read Patrick Smith's previous discussion of Gladwell's statements: http://www.salon.com/tech/col/smith/2008/12/05/askthepilot301/index.html

The problems attributed to Korean Air and similar airlines are the same problems that led to tragedies in Western nations as well -- it wasn't until the early 1980s that _any_ researchers made _any_ advancements in that area on _any_ continent! You can find more background at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crew_Resource_Management

Dan Erwin

As a consultant who's worked with internationals and domestics who're having difficulty communicating with each other, it's a lot easier to write about these issues than deal with them face-to-face. And our socializing is so culturally thick that it takes not only coaching (which is often not available), but a lot of checking each other out. Often, the question after each breakdown is who's going to take the first checking out step.

www.danerwin.com

Meg Bear

KD we always seem to be walking in parallel lives. I've been thinking about this a lot since reading the book. It made me see my work environment and myself in a different light. It also gave me a lot to think about with parenting children. While I am quite certain that it is not as simple as the book made it out to be, there is a real need to understand where our own habits and behaviors hold us back and decide which is more important for us being private or being hydrated. Thanks for writing about this.

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