1 Background and Introduction
This briefing note provides a summary of socio-cultural considerations in the context of aviation. It explores those aspects of culture that can influence an individual’s interactions with others of similar or different backgrounds. The focus is on the impact of national, professional/occupational and organizational cultures on aviation safety.
Aviation is a global industry that often involves operations across borders. With increases in the movement of people around the world, there are many occasions when flight crews comprise individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds. In the past, the predominant cultural issues within an international airline were professional/ occupational and organizational in nature. This was because many airlines operated with crews from a single country of origin and, therefore, there were no cultural issues related to nationality.
Today, however, crews often consist of people with different national origins flying together on both international and domestic flights. Such situations have created socio-cultural issues that were not previously found in the cockpit. These new socio-cultural issues add to the complexity of interactions among crewmembers.
The term socio-culture refers to the combination or interaction of social and cultural elements. Social factors are related to the interactions of people.
Hofstede (1980) defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one state from another” and states that “culture is to a human collectivity what personality is to an individual.” Merrit (1993) defines culture as “the values and practices that we share with others that help define us as a group, especially in relation to other groups.”
From those definitions, it is evident that culture can greatly affect an individual’s social interactions with others from the same or different cultures. Flight crews are not immune to the effects of culture and should attempt to understand how culture can affect social interactions among crewmembers and how these relate to flight safety.
1.2 The culture hierarchy
One of the important elements of managing the effects of culture is to be aware of one’s own cultural influences. The multiple layers of culture that can affect an individual are presented in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Cultural Structures (adapted from Braithwaite, 2001)
The most overarching level of the culture hierarchy is the national culture of an individual. National culture is frequently what people refer to when they talk about their culture. National culture is a function of the values and behaviors that define a way of life in a particular country or region. Most people are influenced in at least some manner by their national culture.
The next level of culture is the industry culture. This culture is a function of the accepted practices for a particular industry. Some industries have a more safety- oriented culture than others.
Organizational culture refers to the culture that is prevalent within a single company or organization. Many times an organization’s culture mirrors that of the industry, but in some cases one or more companies may break from the industry culture and have a different set of values that define that organization’s culture.
Professional/occupational culture is the culture that is prevalent within a particular functional group (e.g., maintenance engineers, pilots, cabin crew) of an industry or organization. Professional/occupational culture often overlaps or is influenced by industry and organizational culture. Many times there are professional sub cultures within an organization.
2 Dimensions of Culture
2.1 National culture
Hofstede (1991) defines three dimensions of national culture. Each of these dimensions is discussed below, along with how they might affect flight operations.
Individualism vs. collectivism. This dimension of culture describes the relationship between an individual and the societal group. Individualistic societies, such as the United Kingdom, United States and Australia, emphasize personal initiative and individual achievement. Helmreich and Merrit (1998) state that individualistic behaviors are defined in terms of personal costs and benefits. Conversely, collectivist societies, such as Brazil, Taiwan and Korea, emphasize the importance of group membership and cohesiveness of the group over individual achievement. In collectivist societies, there is a tendency to avoid open conflicts. It can be said, therefore, that the first officer from a collectivist society would be less likely to challenge a captain who is doing something that the first officer feels uncomfortable with. On the other hand, a first officer from the individualistic culture may challenge the captain, but could come across as aggressive when speaking out.
Power distance. Power distance refers to the inequality in human relationships. Hofstede (1991) defines power distance as “a measure of the interpersonal power or influence between boss and subordinate as perceived by the less powerful of the two, the subordinate.” In a high power-distance culture (e.g., Malaysia, the Philippines), leaders are more likely to be expected to be decisive, and subordinates are expected to be more submissive (Braithwaite, 2001). In countries with lower power distance, such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Denmark, subordinates feel more comfortable about approaching superiors and, if necessary, contradicting them (Helmreich and Merritt, 1998). A culture combining high power distance with collectivism would likely lead to a person being less likely to speak out to a superior when there is something he or she is concerned about.
Uncertainty avoidance. Uncertainty avoidance is an aspect of national culture that describes the extent to which people tolerate uncertainty based on rule orientation, employment stability and stress (Hofstede, 1991). The higher the degree of uncertainty avoidance, the more emphasis is placed upon adherence to rules. Cultures with high uncertainty avoidance tend to seek clarity and order in society, and may be intolerant of differences or inflexible toward uncertainty. On the other hand, those cultures with lower uncertainty avoidance tend to be more accepting of uncertainty as a fact of life and become more adaptable and tolerant (Braithwaite, 2001). Countries with low uncertainty avoidance include the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Countries with high uncertainty avoidance include Greece, Portugal and Japan.
Based on the definitions above, it is feasible that when high collectivism, high power distance and high uncertainty avoidance are combined, the result is likely that a person with higher authority is not to be challenged. Challenging a person with higher authority would be deemed to be outside accepted cultural norms and would likely result in a lower likelihood of the authority figure being challenged even if there is something that does not seem right.
Another major national culture problem is language. It is quite obvious that there can be a problem when two people speak different languages. A more subtle problem, however, is when a message is misunderstood due to cultural or linguistic differences. The same words are often used differently or have different meanings in different cultures. A good example is how “yes” does not always mean yes in some cultures. For one culture, the word yes means “'I have heard you,” rather than “I have understood you and agree or will do it.” A native English speaker may think that the non-native English speaker agreed with what he or she said when, in fact, all that was meant was “I heard you.” Such language problems can cause misunderstandings, confusion and occasionally distrust.
2.2 Organizational culture
Organizational culture is sometimes called corporate culture. Reason (1993) defines corporate culture as “the set of unwritten rules that govern acceptable behavior within and outside the organization. It emanates from the strategic apex of the company and colors all of its activities.”
Organizational culture is concerned with the general way an organization conducts business, including those areas that are not necessarily directly related to safety, although safety culture is part of organizational culture.
Organizational culture can differ among organizations operating in the same country. For instance, one airline may have a fairly rigid, hierarchical company structure, and another airline may have a flat company structure where people treat others as more or less equals. Behaviors among staff within those two companies are likely to be quite different because of these cultural differences. Another example of different organizational cultures is two companies in the same country (operating within the same regulatory framework) where one company tolerates deviations from standard operating procedures (SOPs) and the other company is not tolerant of any such deviations.
A good example of organizational culture problems is when a first officer from Airline A with a relaxed structure is paired with a captain who has always flown with Airline B, which uses a formal structure. At Airline A, it was expected that captains would be referred to by their first name. However, the captain from Airline B always expects his first officer to refer to him as "Captain XXX" or "sir." When the first officer calls him by his first name, the captain becomes offended and considers the first officer rude. Flight deck communication becomes stifled, and they are no longer working effectively as a team. The first officer does not know what has gone wrong since the captain does not explain what offended him. The captain assumes that the first officer knows it was rude to refer to a captain by his first name. This is a simple example of how knowing the organizational culture could have prevented the negative situation.
2.3 Professional culture
Professional culture is frequently formed around the norms and values of the senior members of a profession, who then pass the culture to newcomers. The culture often becomes the basis of a common bond among those in the profession. In the aviation industry, for example, pilots often tend to feel a common bond with other pilots simply because they share an occupation.
As with other cultures, professional cultures can have strengths and weaknesses. A professional bond between crewmembers can lead to good crew resource management (CRM), which in turn leads to shared goals and increased flight safety.
Professional culture, however, can also be a hazard. Professional pride can contribute to a person trying to work when not mentally or physically fit to do so. This often occurs because an individual does not want to appear to be unfit for the job in the eyes of his or her peers. Many times, an individual will attempt maneuvers that push safety margins or may have unrealistic expectations of his or her own abilities and limitations.
3 Predicting and Managing Cultural Differences
Socio-cultural differences can arise among any of the various personnel involved with flight. Differences and conflicts may occur between:
- Flight deck crew and cabin crew (occupational culture).
- Newly hired crewmembers who come from different companies (organizational culture).
- Multi-national crew (national culture).
- Flight crew and air traffic controllers in a different country from the crew’s origin (occupational, organizational and national cultures).
- Crewmembers working in a foreign country and residents of that country (national culture).
Each type of culture influences an individual’s behavior, including the decisions they make and how they react in certain situations. As such, understanding socio-cultural factors and their influence is important for everyone involved in aviation. Knowing that other people may act in a certain way in a given situation or may have a different outlook is important to flight safety.
In order to help manage cultural differences, crewmembers should be advised that the effectiveness of a crew does not depend solely on the competency of each individual. Rather, it also depends on how the crew interacts with each other and those outside the aircraft (e.g., controllers). Each crewmember needs to be proactive as well as cooperative and work toward enhanced performance for the team. If crewmembers do not coordinate their efforts, they will be less effective, even if each has excellent technical skills.
The following Japanese fable illustrates this point quite well:
A father presents an arrow to each of his three Samurai sons who were not getting along with each other. He tells each son to break his arrow, which each of them succeeds in doing. The father then gives them each three arrows and tells them to break all three arrows at once, which none of them can do. The father tells them to work together, for the team of three is stronger than one.
This fable demonstrates that a team that works well together will perform better than an individual. It is important, however, to note that a team that does not work well together can actually perform worse than a single individual.
Communication is also an important way to address cultural differences. Redding and Ogilvie (1984, quoted in Braithwaite, 2001) found that culture influences cockpit communications.
Figure 2 demonstrates how culture can greatly affect the atmosphere in the cockpit. This atmosphere then influences the frequency and quality of communication between individuals. The quality and frequency of communication within the cockpit are also usually indicative of the quality and frequency of communication between the cockpit and others involved in flight operations (e.g., controllers, cabin crew). A crew that is communicating well is typically working well together.
Figure 2. Influence of Culture on Cockpit Communication
(redrawn as shown in Braithwaite, 2001)
4 Prevention Methods
The following are factors that every crewmember should understand in order to prevent cultural differences from affecting flight safety:
- Be aware that every culture has characteristics that both increase and decrease the probability of accidents.
- Be aware that you also have cultural factors that affect you, and that you are not immune from their influence.
- Identify the strengths and weaknesses of your own culture.
- For cultural weaknesses that you have identified, devise a strategy to minimize their negative influence on other crewmembers.
- Not everyone will perceive things the same way you do. Try to understand different perspectives. If necessary, discuss things with others to further your understanding of other points of view.
- Be understanding of different reactions, and be tolerant of different attitudes.
- Do not assume the other person has the same attitude toward things as you do.
- Do not automatically become offended by something that someone does. They may not have meant any offense.
- When you are surprised by someone’s reaction/action, it may be worth considering why such a reaction/action may have occurred. You may find that the other person’s reaction is normal in his or her culture.
- If you are unsure of something that someone said, ask the person what he or she means. It may save you from a linguistic/cultural misunderstanding.
- Be open-minded and flexible. Rigid ways of viewing things are often detrimental to good working relationship with others.
- Be mindful of the principles of good CRM. They are useful in most any situation, including when dealing with cultural differences.
5 Key Points
- The term socio-culture refers to the combination or interaction of social and cultural elements.
- Flight crews commonly comprise individuals from various cultural backgrounds, which makes it important to understand socio-cultural issues.
- It is important is to be aware of one’s own cultural influences.
- Cultural influences include national, industry, professional and organizational factors.
- The degree of individualism, power distance and uncertainty avoidance found in a culture can affect social interactions.
- Culture can affect the atmosphere in the cockpit and may hinder communication.
- Crewmembers should be open-minded and not jump to conclusions when someone does not act in a manner consistent with what might normally be expected.
6 Associated OGHFA Material
7 Additional Reading Material
- Braithwaite, G.R. (2001). Attitude or Latitude? Australian Aviation Safety. Ashgate Publishing: United Kingdom.
- Helmreich, R.L.; Merritt, A.C. (1998). Culture at Work in Aviation and Medicine. Ashgate Publishing: United Kingdom.
- Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-related Values. Sage Publications: California, USA.
- Hofstede, G. (1991). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. McGraw-Hill: New York.
- Merrit, A.C. (1993). The Influence of National and Organizational Culture on Human Performance. Australian Aviation Psychology Association Seminar, Sydney, Oct. 25, 2003.
- Reason, J. (1993). Organization, Corporate Culture and Risk. International Air Transport Association: Montreal, Canada.
- Helmreich, R.L. Safety and Error Management: The Role of Crew Resource Management. University of Texas: Austin, Texas, USA.