Culture and Power Distance: A Reflection

Image source: CU Denver Business School Newsroom

I would love to share an interesting but brief story about “Power Distance” and how it greatly influences our diverse cultures and vice versa. Most of us grew up in a very cultured society. This means that anyone older than you even by a month has to be given their due respect. That’s not to say the younger ones are not respected—but respect is mostly demanded from the elders. The tone of your voice, the little prefix you attach to their names, the way you look at them while you talk, and the pronouns you use to address them are all very important in our societies. 

I borrowed this concept of “Power Distance” from the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede related by Malcolm Gladwell. Hofstede developed the concept of the “Power Distance Index” which is understood as the level of power the old exercise above the young, respect, and people’s attitudes towards hierarchy. The power distance differs from country to country or even within the same country. For instance, In Nigeria, the level that this ‘Power Distance’ plays out differs amongst ethnic groups.

When I began my career, my perception of ‘Power Distance’ and how I related with my superiors played out a lot. The corporate world doesn’t care about this power as much as I thought. Infact, I was astonished when my manager told me I had to address him by his first name and nothing else. That didn’t send my jaw dropping until I learned that the overall Managing Director is addressed by his first name. I’d always avoid calling their names if I don’t need to. Even as I write this, I’d rather call any manager I have worked with ‘Boss’ than call their first name or I prefer to type the first name rather than say it to their faces. Now, permit me to narrate the theory of plane crashes by Malcolm in his book which further convinced me of how the ‘Power Distance’ plays out a lot.

On August 5, 1987, a captain of ‘Korean Air’ lifted a Boeing 747 from Kimpo International Airport to Guam. They took off around 10:50 p.m. that night. The Plane was in perfect working order and around 1:30 am they began descending to Guam Airport where they’d land.  The landing gear went down and around 1:41 am and 48 seconds, the captain asked for the wiper to be turned on because it was raining. A few seconds later, the first officer said, “Not in sight?” he was looking for the runway and couldn’t find it. One second later, the Ground Proximity Warning System called out in its electronic voice saying, “Five hundred (Feet)”. That’s bizarre that at 500 feet they couldn’t still see the runway. When two more seconds passed, the flight Engineer said “Eh?” In an astonished tone of voice.

At 01:42 am and 19 seconds, the first officer said, “Let’s make a missed approach” That is they should pull the plane back up, make a large circle, and try to land again.  One second later the flight engineer said, “Not in sight”. The first officer added, “Not in sight, missed approach”

At 1:42 am and 22 seconds, the flight engineer said again “Go around”

At 1:42 am and 23 seconds, the captain repeated “Go around” but he was too slow to pull the plane out of its descent. Unfortunately, at 1:42 a.m. and 26 seconds, the plane crashed into a densely vegetated mountain close to the airport and burst into flames. 228 out of the 254 people on board were already dead when the rescue workers reached the site.

Notice the subtle use of words by the first officer and flight engineer—too subtle for a crashing plane.

The First officer of Korean Air Flight 801 possessed awareness that attempting a visual landing would likely be unsuccessful. However, due to the cultural norms in Korea, he refrained from voicing his concerns to the captain. This event ultimately led to the tragic crash. Despite suboptimal weather conditions, Captain Park, a highly experienced pilot with more than 8900 hours of flight time, including 3200 hours operating the specific aircraft – a jumbo jet, was well-equipped to handle such challenges. Furthermore, Captain Park’s extensive credentials, which encompassed his achievements with the Korean Air Force, excellent health status, and the recent completion of eight flights from Seoul’s Gimpo International Airport to Guam, further emphasized his competence. Notably, the aircraft itself was in an impeccable operational state and had previously served as the official Korean presidential plane.

Let us put it into perspective. It’s not the first time a plane would crash but for Korean Air, it was becoming too much. ‘The loss rate for an airline like the American carrier United Airlines in the period of 1988 to 1998 was 0.27 per million departures. The loss rate for Korean Air, in the same period, was 4.79 per million departures.’ Meaning United Airlines lost a plane to an accident in every 4 million flights while Korean Air lost more than 17 planes in the same 4 million flights. Malcolm juxtaposed this crash of Korean Air to other crashes in an attempt to understand what crashes have in common and why crashes on Korean Air were so often. Succinctly, he arrived at three common hallmarks of plane crashes.

  1. Classic preconditions of a plane crash—which by themselves alone are not sufficient for a plane crash (e.g. bad weather, fatigue, etc. not our focus)
  2. Mitigated Speech (not our focus)
  3. Power Distance–which affects smooth communication. High Power Distance usually causes “mitigated speech”

Helmreich and Ashleigh Merrit once measured the ‘Power Distance Index (PDI)’ of pilots around the world. South Korea came second just behind Brazil and New Zealand had the lowest. The High Distance inherent in Korea’s culture which was playing out between pilots was why Korean Air was having frequent crashes compared to others.

When Malcolm analyzed the conversations between the captain, first officer and flight engineer of Korean Air and similar crashes towards the build-up to the crash, high power distance echoed throughout the exchange—which was what extrapolated the preconditions of a plane crash that they’d already experienced. The crash could perhaps have been avoided if the communication was without power distance or exhibited a very low power distance. That is they would have spoken in a more direct, and commanding tone as against the subtle and suggestive mode that they have spoken. High power distance is not entirely bad—but surely wouldn’t work in a plane’s cockpit ‘on a stormy night with an exhausted pilot trying to land at an airport with a broken glide scope’.

Korean Air accepting the limitations of their innate cultural power distance which was costing them planes and lives finally acted in 2000 by hiring David Greenberg from Delta Airlines to run their flight operations. He changed the language of Korean Air to English which helped to get rid of the Korean hierarchy which is glaring with the language.


Gladwell, M. (2009). Outliers. London: Penguin Books. 

Rani Salman, (2018) Tragedy on Nimitz Hill: A Lesson on Organizational Culture link

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