Power Distance and Plane Crashes

I am a fan of Malcolm Gladwell.  I like his writing, his stories and his perspective.

In Chapter 7 of Outliers (The Ethic Theory of Plane Crashes) he discussed Power Distance, or the space that is created when authority, hierarchy and culture disrupts our ability to interact with or communicate with each other.  Beyond creating nervousness about flying anytime soon, this chapter challenges leaders to consider how closely tied communication is to your ability to lead. (See Leading and Communicating)  And how as a leader you may be completely unaware of the distance between you and those you lead.

I won’t spoil the chapter, but some of the reasons planes crash are surprising.  It was not the big stuff, the reasons were more a combination of minor mechanical issues, lots of errors, and most importantly a failure of teamwork and communication.  The Captain (the leader) is making decisions and the First Officer or others (the followers) cannot seem to break through the power distance and yell “stop” before it is too late.

The most alarming part of the chapter is an experiment where both Captains and First Officers are provided a scenario.  Each group is instructed to ensure that their planes do not pass through a stormy airspace.  Each group was provided communication options ranging from strong Command options (essentially turn the plane) to much weaker options such as Hinting (the weather up there looks mean).

The results startled me.  Captains picked the strongest communication option and the First Officers picked the weakest option.  This reminded me of my time in the Navy and how that command structure played out.  While in the presence of the Captain instructions were barked towards me.

“Weber, I want the ComSysLantOpt report with a focus on BoatShipAftBowStern!”  (or whatever it was) was barked then I was dismissed.

Yes Sir!  Consider it done! 

I turned to the person next to me and asked if they had any idea what that meant.  Nope, but “good luck.”  In the presence of that leader, “consider it done” was the only acceptable reply.  The Power Distance was huge.

The more organizations I work with, the more this Power Distance issue comes to light if the leaders are not tuned in to the distance their positions create.  Once identified, there are great ways to combat this in the workplace.  The airline industry had to teach junior crew members to speak up in a clear and assertive manner.

Listen to those around you.  Especially anyone who reports to you, or where your position creates some authority over someone else.  Listen for the “hints” that they use because a direct conversation is too risky for them.

While listening recently I found a surprising “hint” near me.  Two of our daughters are in college.  College kids spend money, and need money all the time.  And I replayed a few conversations and/or texts.

“Wow, these books this semester were really expensive.”

“I am not sure if I saved enough money during the summer.”

My first response to these was “Great” thanks for letting me know.  But that was not their real intention was it?  They needed money and didn’t want to come out and directly ask.  There is a Power Distance in my position as a parent, and I learned was how intimidating (Captain like) I can be, even with my own kids.

My challenge for you is this: Spend the next week listening to yourself and others. Identify who hints around you, where you hint, and why.  Once identified, find one area where you can actively and deliberately communicate to shorten the Power Distance.

Maybe this simple step will prevent our workplaces, relationships, or “planes” from crashing.

I got a text the other day.

Dad, can you put $10 on my flex card so I can print out my report?


Now that is progress.

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