When being nice is a deadly problem

In 1997 you were 17 times more likely to die on a Korean flight than a Qantas flight. The US even banned its armed forces from flying on Korean Airlines, despite having thousands of troops in the region. The Korean President even switched the presidential plane to another airline. There were clearly some safety issues with this airline. But why? 

Flight 801 departed from Seoul on its way to Guam with 254 passengers and crew and only 25 people survived. The pilot had recently received a Flight Safety Award for negotiating a 747 engine failure flying at low altitude. He had over 9,000 hours of flying time. He was experienced. 

There were many factors that contributed to the deadly crash but only one of them revealed the main reason after the black box was retrieved. 

The glide scope, which provides a clear view of the flight, was not in action. It was being serviced. It was raining heavily and there were no clear visuals on the runway. The VOR/DME (a radio beacon that combines omnidirectional range with a distance-measuring equipment) was located on a nearby hill, not at the airport – where they are normally located. The pilot, who had a cold, had been up since 6 am and it was now 1:30 am the following day. 

When it became clear that there were visual and navigational issues and the tarmac could not be seen the co-pilot said to the Captain; “Not in sight”. The Captain did not respond. The beacon, that was located on the mountain not the tarmac, said they were at 500 feet. 

The co-pilot then said; “Let’s make a missed approach”.  Suggesting they pull up and try again. The Captain ignored this advice. 

The plane then crashed into the side of the mountain. The National Transportation Safety Board said that poor communication between the flight crew was the probable cause for the air crash, along with the captain’s poor decision-making. 

The main problem was cultural. The co-pilot would have bowed to the pilot when they met up before the flight. He would have spoken with formal ‘deference’ to the captain (one of six different conversational levels in Korean). It was disrespectful to challenge someone more senior, someone at a higher rank.  Bottom line? The co-pilot would die rather than challenge the Captain. The motivator for the co-pilot was about pleasing the pilot rather than speaking his truth. 

To solve this issue occurring in the future they hired a new leader to run flight operations, David Greenberg. He changed the flight language to English. Which gave all Koreans permission to give feedback and communicate outside cultural language barriers. This is an extreme change but clearly an important one. 

In this extreme circumstance, the co-pilot chose to allow the Captain to save face. To be nice. Rather than be clear and save themselves and their passengers. Culture is important. But when it gets in the way of safety we have a serious problem. 

How many times have you gone along with someone else’s idea when you didn’t agree with it or done something you didn’t want to do? I know I have. Whilst they are rarely life-or-death scenarios they matter. 

Have you ever been involved in launching a service you didn’t think the market wanted to buy or kept someone in the business that was behaving poorly to others? Or even eaten food you didn’t like at a dinner party. We do it in large and small ways every day. 

We placate, agree, or go along with something someone else wants rather than sharing our perspective. We choose being nice to others over being true to ourselves. We think that’s kind. But what it really is, is avoidant. 

What if being kind is about speaking your truth?

Do you at times, avoid speaking up in the workplace? And agree to things that you wished you hadn’t. Learn how to stop being avoidant. Come along to my upcoming online session ‘The problem with nice cultures’ you can check it out here