Too Nice? Do Only the “Strong” Survive?

Gordon Gekko

In 1997, Korean Air Flight 801 crashed while on approach to an airport in Guam, killing 225 of the 254 on board.

In 2013, Asiana (a Korean airline) Airlines Flight 214 crashed after clipping a seawall during a landing attempt at San Francisco International Airport, killing two and injuring 180 of 307 passengers.

As an investigator, what would you look for in both crashes? What might be the common denominator? The black box would tell you a lot about these incidents. Typically, we would assume mechanical malfunction, weather issues or pilot error.

What if the unlikely culprit of these crashes lay in business culture?

In his brilliant book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell dissects this question in a chapter called “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.” He said in a CNN interview: “The single most important variable in determining whether a plane crashes is not the plane, it’s not the maintenance, it’s not the weather, it’s the culture the pilot comes from.”

Gladwell informs us hierarchy and never questioning your superiors is part of the Korean culture, underpinned by respect for seniority and an authoritarian business style.

In what is dubbed as a poor “cockpit culture”, the junior crew members were afraid to speak up. In the Korean air crash, the co-pilot was so intimidated by”speaking up” to air traffic control, he could not bring himself to tell them the plane was running out of fuel, and so the aeroplane crashed.

Corporate Cockpits

Many of us read this and feel that this is ridiculous, how could they let it happen, especially over something so stupid?

For a moment, let’s substitute the cockpit with the corporate environment.

In the Korean air flight, the co-pilot knew they were headed for disaster, but culture and hierarchy prevented him from speaking up. In many organisations, this is exactly the case. Many organisational structures trace back to the military, religion or the industrial revolution where and when those structures made sense. Many tasks were “doing” tasks as opposed to “thinking” tasks. People needed to be organised into hierarchical silos in order to get products made. While the industrial revolution has long departed, the muscle memory of those structures still remain. Not only do the mechanical structures still remain, but so do the mental ones.

It is still a common belief that organisational leaders should maintain a distance between themselves and their people. Like the organisational structure, this theory was valuable in its day. If you were a military officer, you had to make big calls, like sending your troops into life-threatening situations. In such scenarios, if a leader became too psychologically close to the troops, their judgement would be clouded.

The only reason a corporate leader might behave in this same manner today is if they felt they may need to fire their staff. It is understandable to maintain a certain distance while an employee is on their initial probation. It is equally important to be a boss more than a friend and a certain distance is understandable.

However, isn’t it time we remove the mask of how leaders believe they must behave?

The Hierarchical Shadow of a Leader

“Every great institution is the lengthened shadow of a single (wo)man. His character determines the character of the organisation.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The leader sets the tone of any organisation, no matter how big or small, no matter if it is an amateur football team or a Fortune 500 behemoth.

“Shadow of the Leader” is a phrase used to describe a common phenomenon in business where people in a position of authority, through organisational habits, beliefs and values can influence the culture and ways of doing business of those around them. (This influence can be good or bad).

In order to get ahead in an organisation, in order to fit in, employees take cues from their manager.

When leaders set a tone of keeping your distance and keeping the organisation at arm’s length, this becomes the culture of the organisation.

The business world has experienced phenomenal changed over the past decade, yet there is a lag with how business is conducted. Many startups have adopted new ways of working. New business structures exist such as Holacracy (founder Brian Roberston was a previous guest on the innovation show) and are open source to be used by anyone. Traditional industries are in a talent war to attract the best candidates to their organisations, yet they are not adapting to a changed world.

Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is the shared belief that we are psychologically safe to take risks in a team environment. If you are in a company, organisation or team and you feel you cannot voice your opinion for fear of loss of self-image, status or even career then you are not in a psychologically safe environment.

We feel safe and feel we belong when we are with people who share the same vision and who have our bests interests at heart. It is then that we cooperate and we overachieve. Birds of a feather flock together only if they feel safe within their flock. In psychologically safe teams, members feel accepted, respected and protected. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel confident to contribute. In psychologically safe teams, team members offer opinions, improve processes and innovate.

The Plane Crash in Slow Motion

Many people are desperately unhappy in their jobs. As Peter Himmelman told us recently on the show: “Unengaged employees are essentially checked out. They’re sleepwalking through their workday putting time — but not energy or passion — into their work.”

When this is the case for people, we find ways to mask our unhappy realities, we bludgeon ourselves from reality at night and we sleepwalk by day. When we do that, we miss the opportunity to make a difference and we let the world take shape around us, rather than play a hand in shaping the World.

Thinking back to the Korean “Cockpit Culture” and the fatal crash in Guam, many companies are in the same scenario on a grander scale. The cockpit is an office, the culture is broken and the crash is happening at a slower rate.

Turn that Frown Upside Down

We have an image of what a business person should be like, but that image is based on the way it was. Many leaders believe they must behave in the image of a Wall Street Gordon Gecko. Many leaders believe their staff serve them. Many leaders are wrong.

Yes, you cannot run with the horses and the hounds. Yes, you need to be friendly, but not a friend. Yes, you need to be likeable, but not concerned with being liked. Leaders are there to lead, this means leading the way, leading by example and when needed leading by serving their people, because it is their people who serve their customers.

We have moved to a purpose-driven economy, people don’t just want to know what organisations do, they want to know why they do it. There has been a monumental shift in business transparency and authenticity. The only way for such change to embed in organisations is if the leader embraces these changes. Just like we saw with the plane crashes, we always start by fixing the business mechanics, but the only way to change how a business operates is by changing the business humanics.

As the world becomes more digital, there is an immense need for us to be more human. Leaders need to adopt this at the top of the mountain and the positive snowball will soon change the culture.

“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” — Richard Branson

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On this week’s innovation show, we look at the 5 languages of appreciation in the workplace with Dr Paul White.

EP 95: How to Communicate Thanks and Appreciation in the Workplace with Dr Paul White Psychologist, Speaker, Consultant and Author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace and Sync or Swim Dr Paul White shares the keys to authentically and effectively communicating thanks and appreciation in the workplace.

In this ear-opening chat, we realise how we can improve our company by changing our language.

We look at the problems 90% of American Companies have a recognition programme, yet, most workers receive no recognition! 67% say more motivated by praise than anything else Labour turnover is one of the significant causes of declining productivity and sagging morale.

More importantly, we explore the solutions with the 5 languages of appreciation:

Words of Affirmation

Quality Time

Acts of Service

Tangible gifts

Physical Touch

Listen here: Website





iHeart Radio


More about Dr Paul White here:

Here is the post he mentioned during the show:

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