by Chan Wai Keong, Shane Yan and Shamantha Yan
How might we increase employee engagement? If we can answer that, we would be answering the question that many HR professionals are thinking about.
Giving employees meaningful work, ensuring they are incentivized right, equipping them with the right skills, providing opportunities for development and stretched growth, having their managers check in on them and having frequent discussions. These are answers that we often read about. However, something still seems to be missing from these solutions, especially when you consider what employees might be unhappy with.
How frequently are employees afraid to express disagreement with their managers? To what extent do employees feel that their views are appreciated and their views included? To what extent do employees feel connected to their colleagues, the workplace or the organizational goals? To achieve this, a cultural transformation may be required, and creating safe spaces might be the answer you are looking for.
Impact of Culture Transformation
First, culture transformation impacts both employee engagement as well as business performance. The impact of culture transformation on business performance is well illustrated by how Korean Air picked itself up in the 1990s. In the late 1980s and throughout 1990s, Korean Air was plagued by a series of fatal air crashes. Korean Air planes were crashing so often that several prominent airlines (such as Delta Air Lines and Air France) suspended their flying partnership with Korean Air in early 1999. It prompted the Korean president at that time, Kim Dae-jung, to switch the presidential plane from Korean Air to its rival Asiana, with a public statement: “The issue of Korean Air is not a matter of an individual company but a matter of the whole country”. That very year, Korean Air turned itself around. Since 1999, Korean Air safety records have been spotless. In 2006, Korean Air was given the Phoenix Award by Air Transport World in recognition for its dramatic transformation. Not only was the change dramatic, the transformation has proven to be lasting and sustained. What contributed to such a miraculous turnaround?
Creation of Safe Spaces
Culture influences values in the workplace and behaviors in a team are influenced by the norms of the prevailing culture. Dutch psychologist Professor Geert Hofstede’s Hofstede model includes the power distance index, which expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. People in societies exhibiting a large degree of Power Distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification.
In relation to Korean Air, analysis of the “black box” cockpit recorders of all Korean Air flights that have crashed or experienced near miss - highlighted how junior co-pilots and first officers refrained from pointing out errors made by the Captains. Social hierarchy and deference to seniors in the Korean culture compelled junior officers to accept the Captain’s decisions without questioning. Even after repeated mistakes made by the Captain, junior officers refrain from speaking up.
When hierarchy affects the ability for open communication, inclusivity and team work to happen, a safe space is compromised. The idea of a safe space originated from minority groups and individuals who felt marginalized to come together to communicate their experiences with marginalization without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome or challenged on account of gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability. Safe space, as referred to here, is any social interaction where the parties feel included, do not feel judged, feel at ease and respected being themselves, sharing a common purpose and confident that each individual has the capability and willingness to contribute. In such a safe space, everyone has a voice, all are treated as equals and candid communication is the norm.
In order to establish the safe space where employees share a common purpose to drive business performance, and in this case, flight safety, Korean Air made two significant moves.
(1) Create a safe space in the cockpit of every Korean Air flight
All pilots and cockpit crew of Korean Air underwent rigorous cultural reconditioning and retraining that support the creation of safe space in the cockpit, adopting behavioral norms that significantly reduce the power distance between them. Every time crew members step into the cockpit, irrespective of whether they have worked together previously, the entire crew will behave and act as equals engaged in the same endeavor to fly safely. The captain act as “first among equals” when interacting with the other equals - appreciate their perspectives, respect their opinions, include their suggestions when making decisions and even open to their checks and challenges - assured that the overriding purpose is to take the passengers to their destinations safely. The co-pilot and first officers feel safe enough to assert themselves, empowered to participate in decision making and respected in performing their role.
(2) Make English the new language in Korean Air to remove any hierarchy
Given that clearly defined hierarchical gradients are inherent in the Korean language, it plays an integral role in the large power distance of the Korean culture. The use of English was a key part of the transformation process as it facilitated an identity shift of the cockpit crew, allowing them to discard the hierarchical roles expected by the Korean culture, and adopting a style of treating each other as equal in a safe space.
Korean Air succeeded in transforming itself because it took the courageous step to acknowledge the pervasive influence a prevailing culture has on the way the key guardians (of a plane safety) relate to each other in the cockpit. The Koreans were willing to confront aspects of their cultural heritage that had outlived its usefulness and unsuited in today’s aviation. Cockpit is a microcosm of a high performing unit with a clearly defined mission, its team dynamics parallel that of a corporate organization. Though the consequences of dysfunction in collaboration in an office may not be as dire and catastrophic, they are nonetheless sources of stress and employee disengagement.
Importance of Safe Spaces in Organizations
What we learnt from the transformation of Korean aviation industry is the capacity of safe spaces to unleash the willingness, capability and potential of every member in an organization to fully engage, contribute and collaborate. We also learn from the transformation of Korean Air that when operating within the context of a pervasive and disempowering culture of the broader organization, it is still possible to establish safe spaces within work cells, project teams, departments and business function units.
There is potential in creating an inclusive safe space for everyone in an organization. A safe space in an organization engages employees to offer perspectives or ideas without fear of being judged, give constructive feedback without fear of retribution and participate in making decisions in areas where they have recognized strengths and where their work performance and job satisfaction are most affected.
When executed effectively, a safe space can spark off a learning culture and a culture of growth mindset which is useful to engage employees and support them with their career growth, and drive innovation and transformation in the workplace. To execute a safe space effectively, it begins with the support of leadership who embrace a growth mindset; someone who recognizes that people can learn from mistakes when they put in effort and that learning and growing in a non-judgmental environment removes the fear of failure and group think. It is then sustained by tacitly agreed rules of engagement that safeguard confidentiality, honesty, empowerment and participation. Read more about understanding and creating safe spaces in the next article.