Because national cultures exert heavy influences on pilot behavior and operator expectations, cross-cultural differences must be considered in adapting elements of a just culture to helicopter operations around the world, human factors expert Ron Frey says.
“Cultures vary, even within countries,” and in developing operational and organizational safety cultures, “you have to put that in the national culture context,” Frey, senior partner with the Human Factor and Incident Investigation Institute in Ottawa, said in a presentation to the CHC Safety and Quality Summit, held in late March in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
A number of operators have implemented safety management systems (SMS) that were originally developed in other countries or other industries, without considering that they might not be effective in their own operating environment, said Frey, also a former chief psychologist for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Clashes between some aspects of national cultures have been implicated in several major accidents, he said, singling out the Jan. 25, 1990, crash of an Avianca Boeing 707 while in a holding pattern awaiting clearance to land at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York after a flight from Medellín, Colombia (Flight Safety Digest, 3/92). Seventy-three of the 158 people aboard were killed and the airplane was destroyed when it ran out of fuel and struck a wooded hillside.1
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said in its final report that the probable cause of the accident was “the failure of the flight crew to adequately manage the airplane’s fuel load, and their failure to communicate an emergency fuel situation to air traffic control [ATC] before fuel exhaustion occurred.”
The report also noted a breakdown in communications among flight crewmembers themselves, with the captain unaware of exactly what the first officer was telling ATC.
Frey added, “Pilots of the Colombian airliner did not assert themselves enough with air traffic control when communicating that they were running out of fuel. Colombian norms tended to dictate that people avoid directly questioning authority — in this case, the authority of controllers who had asked the Avianca plane to keep holding.”
He noted that, more recently, the NTSB cited a similar deferential attitude in its final report on the July 6, 2013, crash of an Asiana Airlines 777 during an approach to San Francisco. Three passengers were killed and 49 other passengers and crewmembers received serious injuries when the 777 collided with a seawall bordering the landing runway.
The NTSB’s final report described the complex cockpit relationship between the pilot flying — a trainee captain — and the pilot monitoring — an instructor pilot, also a captain, who had been designated as pilot-in-command for the flight from Seoul, South Korea. Both pilots were relatively inexperienced in their roles, and the report said that each believed that the other had the authority to make a go-around decision. The trainee captain’s “deference to authority likely played some role in the fact that he did not initiate a go-around,” the report said (ASW, 10/14, ASW, 11/14).2
Frey added that the “hierarchical” nature of Korean culture results in greater deference toward “elders and superiors, in a way that would be unimaginable in the USA or Canada.”
Because this reluctance to question authority is common in many cultures and because it runs counter to many of the shared-responsibility concepts of crew resource management, SMS and other elements of a just culture, Frey said, differences inherent in various national cultures have become a risk-management consideration in overseas operations and when hiring pilots from other countries.
A first step is understanding the characteristics typical in other national cultures and the differences between various cultures, he said. Some of the relevant general characteristics, which will not apply to every individual, include:
- Whether a national culture is oriented toward risk-taking or risk-avoidance. He cited social
science research published in 2012 that found the greatest risk-taking tendencies among Ethiopians, Nicaraguans and Vietnamese, and the least risk-taking among Germans.3
- Whether people tend to rely on formal procedures or informal means of getting things done. “In some cultures, much is accomplished through informal means,” Frey said, citing England as an example, while others, such as France, “value a bureaucratic approach that sets forth formal procedures.”
- Whether societies encourage competition between individuals or cooperation. For example, he said that, in the United States, where competition is encouraged, an ideal reward for making a good suggestion would be presented to an individual; in some Asian countries, a more powerful incentive would be a reward to an entire group.
- Whether people identify strongly with their organization or employer, or are more likely to identify with others in their occupational group.
These differences can exist not only among different national cultures but also among regional cultures, Frey said, noting, for example, that if an operator based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, moved East, into the offshore helicopter industry, cultural changes would be apparent.
Frey cited comparative intercultural research by Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede that measures and compares national cultures according to six cultural dimensions and examines their influence in the workplace.4 Subsequent research, using survey data from 9,400 male airline pilots in 19 countries, concluded that Hofstede’s findings generally could be applied to work in the commercial aviation environment.5
The cultural dimensions include power distance, defined as “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unevenly.”
Frey said that in societies with a high degree of power distance, people tend to accept “hierarchies in which everyone has a place without the need for justification,” while societies with low power distance have more equal distribution of power and are seen as more democratic. According to Hofstede’s work, countries at the high end of the power distance index include Malaysia and Arabian countries; those at the low end of the index include Denmark and the U.K.
In assessing power distance and the other five dimensions, Hofstede emphasizes, in work included on his website, that his descriptions are of central tendencies, while acknowledging that “everybody is unique, yet social control ensures that most people will not deviate too much from the norm.”
A second cultural dimension is individualism, defined as “the tendency of individuals to look after themselves and their immediate family as opposed to the collective society.”
Individualistic societies emphasize personal achievements and individual rights, with people expected to stand up for themselves, Frey said, while in collectivist societies, people “act predominantly as members of a lifelong and cohesive group.” At the high end of the individualism index are Australia and the United States; at the low end, Singapore and Korea.
A third cultural dimension is masculinity, defined as “the tendency within a society to emphasize traditional gender roles and traits.”
Values in masculine cultures include competitiveness, assertiveness, materialism, ambition and power, compared with feminine cultures, which value relationships and quality of life, Frey said, adding, “In masculine cultures, the differences between gender roles are more dramatic … than in feminine cultures, where men and women have the same values emphasizing modesty and caring.” Countries at the high end of the masculinity index include Japan and Mexico and at the low end, Sweden and Denmark.
Uncertainty-avoidance is the fourth cultural dimension, defined as “the extent to which members of a society feel threatened by uncertain or unknown situations.”
Cultures with high uncertainty-avoidance “try to minimize the occurrence of … unknown circumstances and to proceed with careful changes, step-by-step planning, and by implementing rules, laws and regulations,” Frey said. In low uncertainty-avoidance cultures, people are more comfortable with change and more pragmatic, and they try to function with as few rules as possible, he added. At the high end of the uncertainty-avoidance index are Greece and Japan, and at the low end, Singapore and the U.K.
Long-term orientation is the fifth cultural dimension and describes a society’s orientation toward time and the value it places on patience. Long-term-oriented societies look to the future with values such as persistence, thriftiness and ability to adapt. Short-term-oriented societies relate more to the past and the present, with value assigned to respect for tradition, reciprocation and fulfilling social obligations, Frey said. China and Hong Kong place at the high end of the long-term orientation index, while Zambia and the U.K are at the low end.
The sixth cultural dimension is indulgence, or the extent to which a society’s members try to control desires and impulses. An indulgent society tends to “allow relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun,” Frey said, while a restrained society believes gratification should be strictly regulated. The United States and Canada are at the high end of the indulgence scale, and China and Japan score at the low end.
Cultural Dimensions and SMS
These cultural dimensions factor into how an operator’s safety managers will fare in a national culture other than their own, Frey said.
As an example, he described how power distance would be a factor for the safety managers if an operator from Austria — a country that scores 11 out of 100 in power distance — wanted to expand operations to Mexico — where the power distance score is 81.
Austrian safety management personnel would be accustomed to believing that inequalities among people should be minimized, that an organizational hierarchy translates into inequality, that the salary range is narrow, that subordinates expect to be consulted, and that the ideal boss would be a “resourceful democrat,” Frey said. However, their associates in Mexico may have a number of different beliefs, including that inequalities among people “are both expected and desired”; that an organizational hierarchy reflects an “existential inequality”; that the salary range is wide; that, rather than expecting to be included in decision making, subordinates “expect to be told what to do”; and that the ideal boss would be “a benevolent autocrat or good father.”
In this situation, an Austrian safety manager would be advised to adopt a more authoritarian management style, showing respect and deference to upper level managers; to give explicit instructions to those working for him or her; to emphasize deadlines; and not to expect that subordinates would take the initiative.
In another example, Frey described the challenges facing safety managers from an operator in the United States, which scored 68 out of 100 on the indulgence-orientation index, if they enter the market in China, which scored 24.
The U.S. managers would be accustomed to “relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires, freedom of speech [and] emphasis on personal control,” while Chinese employees would have a “sense of helplessness about personal destiny,” and believe that “freedom of expression is expected to be controlled” and that “gratification needs to be curbed and regulated by strict norms.”
U.S. managers would do well to “understand that for employees to be more self-disciplined, they may require stricter conditions to feel good about the work” and to accept that “having a relaxed and collegial atmosphere to increase safety culture is not a good idea in restrictive cultures,” Frey said.
- NTSB. Aircraft Accident Report NTSB/AAR-91/04, Avianca, The Airline of Colombia, Boeing 707-321B, HK 2016; Fuel Exhaustion; Cove Neck, New York; January 25, 1990. April 30, 1991.
- NTSB. Accident Report NTSB/AAR-14/01, Descent Below Visual Glidepath and Impact With Seawall; Asiana Airlines Flight 214, Boeing 777-200ER, HL7742; San Francisco, California; July 6, 2013. June 24, 2014.
- Vieider, Ferdinand M.; Chmura, Thorsten; Martinsson, Peter. Social Science Research Center Berlin, Discussion Paper SP II 2012-401, Risk Attitudes, Development, and Growth-: Macroeconomic Evidence from Experiments in 30 Countries. November 2012.
- More information on Hofstede’s work, including interactive comparisons of countries’ cultural dimensions and a personal cultural survey, can be found at <geert-hofstede.com>.
- Merritt, Ashleigh. “Culture in the Cockpit: Do Hofstede’s Dimensions Replicate?” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology Volume 31 (May 2000): 283-301.