Thinking Beyond Cultural Legacy: The Case of Korean Air

To break the wheel is a path in itself.

Cultural Legacy

My favorite chapter from renowned author Malcolm Gladwell comes from his 3rd bestseller, Outliers, where he masterfully weaved the link between plane crashes and Korean culture. Here, Gladwell introduces the concept of cultural legacy:

A cultural legacy is the inheritance of cultural traits that influences our success or failure.

Just like the sociological experiment on the monkeys and bananas, where the last monkey was culturally trained by peers that came earlier, cultural legacies are also practices from centuries ago that have been passed down from generation to generation. Aspects like these are cemented through time and, as Gladwell says, are powerful forces that have deep roots and long lives. The cultures of our ancestors, even those that we no longer practice, still influence our present-day behaviors. Gladwell illustrates this with the case of Korean Air.

Nearing the end of the 1990s, Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline around the globe. Cockpit miscommunication has been a persistent factor in these accidents. For example, the Korean Air Flight 801 crash was attributed to the pilot’s decision to land despite the junior officer’s disagreement, evidence of high power distance — a culture that denotes a heavily hierarchical society. Gladwell argues that this innate behavior of deep reverence towards elders and superiors highly contributes to cockpit miscommunication, especially on planes designed to be flown by two equals. Unsurprisingly, it has been found that the safest airlines are often from countries whose cultures do not value strict hierarchies.

Culture isn’t static.

It is challenging to break the chains of cultural legacy, especially when most of these emerged to better society. However, culture must change alongside our ever-changing lives and environment. The stark difference between the culture of the maker and the user of the aircraft involved may have led to the unfortunate crash of Korean Air. Unlike Korea, the USA has a low power distance culture, and it designed the aircraft considering cockpit communication where hierarchies do not matter much.

It doesn’t mean that hierarchies are bad. But as we grow, we take in new experiences and technologies and, in this example, from other countries with different cultural tendencies. As we encounter divergent circumstances from our culture, we begin to adapt and think beyond the cultural barrier itself.

Korean Air did address this pattern. To resolve the difficulties resulting from culturally-driven communication barriers, Korea started training its subordinates to take a more active and assertive role in their position. Pilots are trained to speak up and challenge the authority of another co-pilot and apply critical thinking and assertiveness. By changing their language of communication, they acknowledge that going beyond their cultural legacies is indeed a path forward.

Business Culture isn’t static too.

You may have noticed practices in your company that you believe are unnecessary, or worse, inhibiting. These may have been crucial years back, but our methods, like our culture, are dynamic. This is where critical thinking sets in — we must train to look beyond the cultural barrier that limits us. Don’t wait for the next disaster to happen before recalculating. If we keep ourselves blindly following what we are dealt with, we stay cogs in a wheel. Our task is to challenge what needs challenging and to keep thinking critically. Only then can we move forward.

Culture shouldn’t be static, and we should adapt to it.

What better way than to keep on thinking.

Our task is to challenge what needs challenging and to keep thinking critically.

If you want one more reason why you should think beyond cultural legacies, read the short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Thank me later.

Leo is an electrical engineer, MBA Candidate, and public speaker. He writes as a hobby. Follow his page on productivity and personal finance on Facebook here.

Electrical Engineer | MBA | Public Speaker |