Outliers: The Story of Success | Study Guide

Malcolm Gladwell

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Outliers: The Story of Success | Part 2, Chapter 7 : Legacy (The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes) | Summary


Key Takeaways

  • Korean Air suffered 17 times more plane crashes than almost any other airline between 1988 and 1998. For the most part, these crashes were caused not by singular human errors, but by miscommunication that experts later attributed to cultural conditioning.
  • South Korea is what Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede calls a high-power distance index country. Power index deals with how those in power and their subordinates see themselves in relation to each other. High-power index indicates keeping more distance in relationships, both in relation to wielding power and submitting to authority. A low-power index indicates more individuality because those in power or under authority still maintain a sense of equality—or less distance in relationships based on authority. Respect for superiors is incredibly important in South Korean culture, and those who hold power are respected and feared more than they are in low-power distance index countries such as the United States, Sweden, and Austria. Power lines aren't crossed in South Korea. Subordinates always defer to their superiors, even when they know the superior is wrong, because it would be very disrespectful to do otherwise.
  • This adherence to cultural expectations was a big problem for Korean Air as well as for airlines in other high-power distance index countries, such as Columbia. The problem was the hierarchy of the cockpit. The captain, also known as the pilot, was in charge of the entire operation. He had the most experience, so he was given the highest ranking and the greatest amount of power. His second-in-command was the first officer. The flight engineer supported them both. Each of the Korean Air crashes between 1988 and 1998 happened because subordinates were too polite—or too afraid—to forcefully question a superior or suggest an alternative plan. The subordinates downplayed their own ideas (which is known as mitigating speech) so as not to offend those who had more power than they did. In the 1997 Korean Air crash, instead of saying, "The weather looks bad ahead. We should go around," the Korean flight engineer mitigated his speech and said, "Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot." The first officer assumed the captain knew what he meant, but the message was completely missed because the captain was tired.
  • This problem doesn't often happen in countries where subordinates consider themselves to be of equal value as their hierarchal superiors. An American first officer would have a much easier time telling the captain their plane was on a course for disaster. They would probably still be respectful, but they wouldn't assume the captain is always right.
  • Listening to the "black boxes" that record all activity in a plane's cockpit helped investigators and Korean Air officials finally realize why so many of their planes were crashing. They worked diligently to ensure it doesn't happen anymore. David Greenberg from Delta Air Lines was brought in to retrain all flight staff. The first step was to have everyone brush up on their English language skills. English is the unofficial language of the aviation world—air traffic controllers use it, and it's the language of the flight crew checklists. Using a different language also helped change the mindset of native Korean speakers. It helped them to break away from the "sharply defined gradients of Korean hierarchy: formal deference, informal deference, blunt, familiar, intimate, and plain." English created a more level playing field for everyone in the cockpit.
  • Gladwell emphasizes what Greenburg didn't do: he didn't fire everyone and start over with flight crews from a low-power distance culture. He instead had the existing crews examine their culture and where it came from, and then change the aspects of it that didn't work in the aviation field. Like hockey players with January birth dates and Jewish lawyers prevented from joining "gentlemanly" law firms, the Korean Air staff was given "an opportunity to transform their relationship to their work."
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