How Respect Almost Killed Me
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After spending sleepless nights studying, almost over-dosing on Ramen noodles and practically making the library desk my bed for 5 years…I had finally graduated from college. All my Nigerian lantern burning skills and mosquito dodging talents had gotten me through American college with ease. My reward after much rejection by various companies <see that article> was a full time job as a design engineer. I was excited about the prospects of being an engineer that actually did engineering. As an engineer [especially a designer for that matter] one of the things you had to participate in were what we called design review meetings. It was were designs were
destroyed analyzed and critiqued to ensure that all aspects of the design had been fully considered. So it was no surprise that less than 24 hours after I had resumed work I was forced thrust into a review meeting.
The conference room had a large table littered with white pieces of A4 paper and had the largest sheet of paper I had ever seen in my life lying smack dab in the middle of the table. There were engineers from all echelons of the company huddled around the table murmuring to themselves. I walked up to the table to see what all the buzz was about, but all I could see on the paper was a labyrinth of lines and numbers that made no sense to me. To be honest it looked like a Pablo Picasso painting, but without out the color and sprinkled with a dose of confusion. But the other engineers understood it, not only did they understand it…they were excited by it and spoke over each other to get their their thoughts across. From the outside it looked very chaotic and unruly…however, After listening to the loud chatter for a few more minutes I began to understand that the ink lines represented an actual component and the numbers were scaled dimensions. With my new found knowledge and as the newest engineer in the room, I wanted to impress. So I did what every young wannabe engineer would do…speak!
Now I would like to tell you that I remember exactly what I wanted to say or what it was that spurred me to want to speak, but to be honest I cannot remember. All I know is that my right arm jolted into the air, with my index finger inching to the peak of my arm as my middle, thumb, pinkie and ring fingers simultaneously gravitated to the center of my palm. I had just executed the Nigerian primary school raise-your-arm before you speak pose to a perfection! If my primary school teacher could see me she would have given me an A for execution and A+ for effort.
At this point what should have happened was that everyone would stop talking and then the meeting leader would look at me and grant me permission to talk. But instead nobody looked at me and if they did they it was the why-is-he-raising-his-hands side glance look. I even resorted to the time tested finger wagging…but nothing. Even the air molecules floating around the room were confused by my right arm which was now obstructing their normally free pathway.
The last time my arm had confused air molecules in that way was on the faded basketball court of Lagos Country Club and it was accompanied by a loud swoosh as my opponent landed yet another jumper over my flailing hands. In 1999, basketball was my new hobby, it was a welcome break from lawn tennis which my dad had tried to force us to play throughout primary school. But after years of non-Federer like action he slowly began to realize that none of his children had the Serena or Nadal DNA in them. So we stayed away from the clay courts and instead killed time on the basketball courts. It was fun as we dribbled and shot our tan spalding ball into the old and rusty grey rim. However, our most fun moments was when people argued the basketball rules…in my first few days I would listen and believe anything I was told, until I realized that people were making up rules daily depending on how it benefitted them and normally the loudest and most aggressive players got their rules enforced. It was one of those few games that required a law degree for you to succeed. We would often get to the courts around 2 pm in the afternoon and would not leave till
they pried our cold dead fingers off the rim 11 pm at night. Needless to say it was very difficult to get us to stop playing, the only times we stopped was when the rain came or when an important soccer match was going on. But all that changed on one particular but non-spectacular day.
We were out on the court doing what we always do best, dribbling, shooting, missing and sometimes hitting. The game was as intense as usual and the loudest most dramatic players were winning all the calls as usual. As was customary on every Saturday afternoon at Lagos Country Club there was a big party celebration going on. Maybe it was a wedding ceremony, graduation or contract celebration…I really don’t know. All I know was that the smell of rice laced with the aroma of fried chicken lingered in the air and blended effortlessly with the loud music blaring from the speakers. Occasionally a waiter or two would walk by the basketball court balancing several bottles of beer on an aluminum tray as they danced around the cracks on the side-walks surrounding the court. Their movement was rather uneventful and after sometime they just blended into the background…until…
A shot was heaved into the air and graved the rim or a player lost the ball or the ground tilted suddenly, either way our ball began rolling towards the cracked sidewalks. Before I go any further, let me just say that every male Nigerian believes that their destiny no matter their age is become a soccer player. Our waiter was no exception because as soon as the ball came near him he performed a side flick to lob the ball back onto the court, but what ended up happening instead was a side fall to the ground. On any other day he would have dusted himself up and continued on, but there was one slight problem…he was carrying several bottles of drinks on his tray. Crash…was the next sound we heard as pieces of bottles flew precariously in a thousand and one directions, leaving trails of broken glass and broken football dreams on the ground. But before the bottles could even complete their breaking cycle, we heard a loud thundering voice yelling “no more basketball, the court is closed” It was an older gentleman running towards the court waving his hands as if to punctuate the severity of his tone. We did not argue, we had been taught at home, in church and in school that when an older gentleman is screaming and yelling an order you must obey. So we all did, horridly picking up our basketball paraphernalia and making a dash off the court. But then it happened…
“Who are you…you have no right to tell us to stop playing!” yelled Eki one of the basketball players.
It was like one of those slow motion films…I could feel myself saying nooooooooo and running to catch the words before it hit the ear drums of the crazed old gentleman invading our court, but with the speed of sound tagged at over 340 metres per second I had no chance. The older man heard the words and immediately turned around yelling the words that every Nigerian says just as he is about to unleash his ultimate anger “do you know who I am!”
But the Eki was even more defiant “no but are you in charge of the basketball court? Plus you have no right to tell us to stop playing.”
I had never seen anything like this before, a young teenager trying to reason logically with an older person that was angry! I ran to restrain Eki, I thought he was crazy. Ironically his argument was sound. A random adult from a party had no jurisdiction or right to tell us to stop playing basketball. In fact his whole argument was baseless. The reason the waiter fell was because of his overzealousness and besides telling us to stop playing basketball was uncalled for. But the older gentleman remained adamant and the only phrase he kept yelling was “do you know who I am.” Sadly, he never told us who he was (to this day I think he was not a member of the club). By this time the commotion and yelling had attracted a large crowd on and off the court. With that type of attention we were [albeit unfairly] forced to stop playing basketball for the day. I left the court confused.
It was the same confusion that plagued me in the conference room of my first design meeting as I waved my hand in the air seeking permission to speak amongst the older engineers. Confused because they did not respond, confused because everyone addressed themselves by their first name, confused because everyone spoke loudly and rudely, confused.
Who could blame me, for years I had been taught to respect my elders, to raise up my hands before speaking and to seek permission before going to the toilet. I was thought that any time my elders spoke, no matter if it did not make any logical sense, I was to keep quiet nod and say yes sir. That was my educational/cultural upbringing. But now stuck in a foreign land several thousand miles away my hand raising permission seeking culture was killing my career even before it had started. I would walk around the office greeting anybody slightly older than me with the words yes sir and yes ma, leaving a trail of bewildered confusion in my wake. It would take years for me to get past my respect sickness. And it had to do with a deadly plane crash…
In January of 1990 Captain Laureano Caviedes and first officer Mauricio Klotz were manning flight 052 of Colombian airliner Avianca. They were departing from Medellin, Colombia and were headed to New York’s Kennedy Airport. On the evening of their journey, several flights across the east coast of America were delayed or cancelled due to dense fogs and heavy winds. A tricky weather combination for even the most experienced of pilots. Flight 052 was not spared as their arrival to Kennedy airport was amongst the many delayed flights.
To allow time for other flights ahead of them to complete their landing, their plane was made to circle over Norfolk Virginia for nineteen minutes and then above atlantic city for another twenty-nine minuted and finally forty miles south of kennedy airport for another twenty-nine minutes. After circling around for over seventy-five minutes, Avianca was finally cleared to land. They approached the airport runway, lining up the plane with the strip, but just as the place came in for its final approach they encountered a sudden wind gust. Which meant that they were now flying against a very strong wind. To maintain their needed landing speed and overcome the wind force, Captain Caviedes had to add extra power to the plane’s engine. But just as he was about to make the final landing, the head wind disappeared suddenly! With the plane already moving at a higher than normal velocity and with a possibility of over running the runway, captain Caviedes had to pull out of the landing and circle back again for a second approach. At that moment one of the plane’s engine failed and then almost immediately the second engine failed. It was imperative from a life or death standpoint to land the plane now…but there was one little problem, they were 16 miles away from the Kennedy airport and the engine failures were not really failures but a direct result of an empty fuel tank. Avianca flight 052 crashed into a country side estate killing seventy three of its 150 passengers on board. There was nothing wrong with the aircraft. There was nothing wrong with the airport. The pilots weren’t drunk or high. So what happened and what does it have to do with basketball screaming and the hand raising culture of certain countries.
Initial research into the cause of the Avianca crash focused on the obvious, the poor weather condition and protracted flight delays. It was an open and shut case…but not for Suren Ratwatte a veteran pilot, who was very concerned about the level of silence experienced in the cockpit minutes before the plane crashed. For a plane running out of fuel the panic and chatter should have been much higher, but it was the opposite…the cabin was disturbingly quiet. Even the communication between the first officer Klotz and his captain Caviedes was frightfully calm. Klotz was also responsible for direct communication with the Kennedy airport traffic control, but much like the previous communications his tone was weirdly calm. In fact testimonies from traffic control following the incident indicated Klotz was at best non-chalant and that in no way could his voice have communicated the obvious fact that his plane was in serious trouble.
But was Klotz to blame for the entire crash? Let us study an actual conversation before the crash between Klotz, Caviedes and the Air Traffic Control (ATC):
ATC: I am going to bring you about fifteen miles northeast and then turn you back onto the approach. Is that okay with you and your fuel?
Klotz: I guess so. Thank you very much.
For a plane that is practically close to empty “I guess so” is not the right description phrase a better response would be “WE HAVE TO LAND RIGHT NOW!” But the exchange that follows between the captain and Klotz after is even more interesting.
Captain: What did he [air traffic control] say?
Klotz: The guy is angry
Klotz feels that the air traffic controller is angry. If you have ever experienced New York, you would know that the city is very aggressive and fast. There is no time for polite talk, people just shoot straight to the point. As an outsider coming into the city for the first time you would feel that they are a tad bit rude. It was the same exact feeling I felt in the boardroom when I saw people jumping in and speaking and it was the same feeling I felt when I heard Eki questioning the older gentleman’s illogicality…at both moments I felt people were being disrespectful and I felt intimidated by authority. And that is exactly the same way Klotz felt, as a Colombian where authority was held in high regard just like Nigeria, he found himself intimidated by the seemingly disrespectful ATC. And even when it was a matter of life and death he still remained intimidated.
Several studies were carried relating to this crash, but one of note is by Dutch Psychologist Geert Hofstede. His study was called the Power Distance Index (PDI), in which he analyzed how a particular culture values and respects authority. A high PDI meant that a country laid a heavy importance on authority and was often characterized by titles and special treatment toward authoritarian figures. A low PDI on the other hand meant that a culture did not lay a heavy emphasis on authority. Authoritarian figures there were respected, but not over glorified, they were addressed by their first name and strove to downplay their authority.
Guess what country is on the low end of the PDI scale? America and on the high end…Colombia. Klotz’s home country. And if Nigeria my home coutry was put on that scale we would be on the high end of the PDI scale as well. This is where it gets controversial, Avianca flight 052 did not crash because of the weather or sleepy pilot. It crashed because of a first pilot [Klotz] who was intimidated by his captain and by the external Kennedy air traffic control. His intimidation caused a subtle breakdown in communication that led to a crash. What would pass for rude in high PDI countries like Nigeria or Columbia are seen as normal in low PDI countries like America. And when both cultures clash there is bound to be problems.
Respect is an important word in many African countries especially my country Nigeria. You dare not question an older person and you better not ever dream of calling him out by his first name. But the problem is that there is such a thing as too much respect…a point where respect diffuses logic. You have parents telling their kids to do University courses that they hate, but the kids never speak up because they have to respect authority. You have company executives making poor decisions in boardroom and but subordinates sit in silence too timid to speak up even when they have a power solution deep down inside of them. If we want to change this we have teach our children that parents and authority can be wrong sometimes, to show them that is okay to challenge elders and question illogical rules and to even let them address us by our first names and not just Daddy or Mummy or Sir/Ma. For some people this would seem crazy even ludicrous, but this was one of the key learning that came out after other Avianca style plane crashes.
Several airlines began insisting that first officers and captains address themselves on a first name basis. This is done to breakdown any barrier of authority and allow fluid communication between both parties. This is in sharp contrast to Nigeria for example where everyone wants to be called by a title…your excellency, engineer, chief justice, obi of blah…Doctor this and that. Even the driver driving the chief of his village wants to be addressed as a chief driver. This lust for authority furthers widens the communication gap and limits the free flow of information that is crucial for generating ideas. For high PDI society to grow especially as the world becomes more global, they would have to do something drastically different to reduce the way we look at authority.
Several years now removed from my hand raising boardroom experience, I had the opportunity to visit a University in Nigeria. I had just finished a training program at the unviersity and 20 students and myself drove down to the campus restaurant. The goal was to have lunch with the event planners and organizers. But when we got there we found out that the tables were arranged with 4 chairs per table. Thus to fit 20 people, the logical thing would be to grab 4 or 5 tables and join them together. But instead what happened is that every one of the students sat down on separate tables. I was confused, my American instinct began dragging the tables together. But I was stopped by one of the students, who seemed scared that I would actually move a table in a restaurant. I insisted it was fine and we did join the tables and ended up sitting together. If I had not experienced my boardroom debacle, or stumbled upon Avianca flight 052 we would all have had lunch on separate tables!
However, this might seem like a trivial example, but somewhere across the globe a company or organization is meeting on separate tables. Not because they want to but because the fear of upsetting authority limits them from seeing the possibility of dragging tables together. Only when we breakdown the respect barriers can we fully enjoy the benefits of having everyone present at the same table discussing ideas without any fear or intimidation, ultimately creating a culture where logic is respected more than authority.
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