Thursday, January 28, 2010

Could mocking your manager be saving lives?

I’ve just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers: the story of success” it’s a great read, if only in that Gladwell takes a topic that could have so easily fallen into the already overflowing category of self-help drivel and moulds it into an engaging, thought provoking read… even for a cynic like myself.

But I’m not here to jot superlatives about Outliers. The thing that I’d like to share, the thing that really stuck in my mind about the book was Gladwell’s look at the idea of power-distance.

It’s a concept first developed by Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede in the seventies as part of an IBM sponsored research project into the way different national cultures work together*. Hofstede explains it like this:

“Power-distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but defined from below, not from above. It suggests that a society's level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders.”

What this means is, in a low power-distance culture, managers are seen as just other co-workers who happen to have a bit more responsibility, whereas in a high power-distance culture managers are seen more as the ruling class, they’re cut from finer cloth than lowly workers. In a high power-distance culture, you do what you’re told, you don’t ask questions in the hope that maybe one day you’ll prove yourself worthy of making the step up to a better life.

“in an environment like, say, the cockpit of a 747, subordinates being squeamish about questioning superiors can make a big impact – literally”

So why does that make a difference? Well, if you’re working in an environment like, say, the cockpit of a 747, subordinates being squeamish about questioning their superiors can make a big impact – literally. In these sorts of complex, high-consequence environments, the difference between respectfully suggesting your superior checks the instrument panel again and saying, “Hey Bob, what’s that red light…oh crap, you’ve forgotten to put the undercarriage down!” make the difference between smooth landing and fireball.

OK, so flashing back home to Queenstown, the adventure tourism capital of New Zealand. Where do we fit on the power-distance scale? Right at the lowest end, New Zealand is in the bottom five. That’s great right? Well, yes and no.

Thanks to a quirk in our immigration laws, Queenstown receives a large proportion of its workers from Latin America. Which is fantastic - I’ve always maintained that without immigration and tourism Queenstown would be like any other farming town, just with bigger mountains. The thing is, Latin America is a textbook example of a high power-distance culture.

So what we have occurring increasingly frequently is low power-distance managers (who expect to be questioned) working with high power-distance staff (who don't ask questions) in adventure tourism – an industry which lends itself to complex systems and high consequences – just like a 747 cockpit.

Recent events like the Outdoor Pursuits Centre tragedy, the river-boarding death of Emily Jordan, the jet boating death of Yan Wang and numerous near-misses stand as evidence that in adventure tourism, unless every box is checked and cross-checked, things can go horribly wrong.

So what are we to do? Well, I’m no expert (plus, bloggers don’t solve problems, we create them! :-) so I’m not going to try to offer a panacea here. But it would seem that Queenstown’s business community needs to ensure that we keep our low power-distance culture, and encourage visiting workers to join that culture.

Perhaps a instituting a points-based reward scheme to encourage a healthy disrespect for authority could work: steal your boss’s parking space - that’s a point; make a joke about your manager’s new haircut - that’s two; pin a childish caricature of the CEO to the company notice board - that’s five. Whoever scores the most points at the end of the week gets to take Friday afternoon off.

Who would have thought all that time Kiwis have spent ridiculing the boss behind his back – and in front of it – was actually fulfilling an important occupational health and safety function.

*The study identified five ‘cultural dimensions’; power-distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, and long-term verses short term orientation. There’s a good summary on Hofstede’s website -

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Out There - in print!

Check out January’s edition of Wilderness Magazine for the first installment of the Out There column, exploring the etiquette of bringing music into the wilderness. The story is the first in a series on philosophy and travel that I’ve agreed to co-author through 2010 (and hopefully beyond). The column’s brief is a dream: a thousand words on philosophy and travel – basically explore with your mind or your feet… then write it up. It’s going to be a fun year!