Culture & Safety – An Unlikely Link?

Last week an interesting incident took place at our workplace. Around 3pm, one day, I took my usual rounds to our Research labs to see what our young scientists were up to. I am particularly fond of meeting the young fellows in the lab because they are still fresh from the college and therefore show a lot of enthusiasm and passion for their work. I mean they are not yet conditioned by corporate do’s & don’ts nor corrupted by company politics. As soon as I entered the lab, one young scientist, who was busy doing an experiment walked across the lab to greet me. I got into an informal chat on his projects and more specifically on the experiment he was conducting. He started explaining and soon both of us got absorbed in the discussions. Suddenly I noticed a fire above the flask where the experiment was going on. We all got alarmed (no, not panicked, which is the worst thing that can happen during an accident) and instantly did whatever was required to be done to stop feeding the fire and brought it under control. Naturally I was very concerned and called for a special safety meeting on the same day after asking the chemist to file a quick report on the incident.

In the meeting, I  wanted a thorough discussion on the incident and asked the guy to narrate the whole story. He explained as follows: “I started the experiment around 2pm – added all the chemical ingredients- heated the contents to boil/reflux and then by about 3pm the reaction was over. Then I applied vacuum using a pump and started to remove the solvent. At that time SIR entered the lab- I walked across the lab to greet SIR and it caught fire!”  I exclaimed:  “OMG, So SIR caused the fire?!” And everyone laughed out loud. Jokes apart, what really happened was this: I entered the lab, this guy closed the vacuum outlet in his anxiety to receive me and forgot to open it to the pump back again. Solvent pressure built up in the vessel and it caught fire!

I perceived a possible cultural issue behind this accident. Although I  said it in humour in the meeting , I suspect SIR did cause the accident. Indians are culturally conditioned to treat elders at home and bosses in the office with special reverence. Their spontaneous show of respect manifests in so many ways. In this particular instance, the guy in question, perhaps wanted to be extra-polite to answer my questions at the cost of safety. Instead of keeping me waiting, he kept the experiment on hold which led to pressure development and fire. Therefore, in the meeting, I drove home this point forcefully saying that even if the CMD of the company enters the lab, the chemist has the right to keep him waiting. Nobody is above Safety & Quality of experiments, was my message to the lab scientists.

This incident reminds me of the famous author Malcom Gladwell, who dealt with this issue in his famous book OUTLIERS. In the book, the author shares a fascinating story about culture and airline safety. Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period until the end of the 1990s. The author writes: When we think of airline crashes, we think, Oh, they must have had old planes. They must have had badly trained pilots. No. What Korean Air was struggling with was a cultural legacy. The Korean culture is hierarchical and you are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S or in the West. Taking the example of one particular air crash, the author says, the pilot made an error and the co-pilot didn’t correct him. But once Korean Air figured out that their problem was cultural, they fixed it.

I am sure similar cultural problems do exist in India too. However, we do not recognize them as long as the consequences are minor. It will be of interest to know whether any of the readers faced such cultural issues at work resulting in serious consequences to business.

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Published in: on August 4, 2013 at 5:27 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. It is so interesting to read. I have had to deal with instances where the boss (from the US) would be upset at an IT application designed by an Indian, and when he would get all wild and animated, the Indian designer sitting on the other side of the table would look at him politely, keep smiling or grinning, wait for him to complete. The US boss would later mention to me ‘I hate to see the guy grinning..’ I would then have to explain to him that it was more a cultural think, and not meant to be taken as a smirk or sneer.

    The biggest issue I have seen is that with elders (in this case bosses), we forget that it is OK to explain, rationalize, negotiate, present our point of view, and so often whateve the boss says is taken as an order, never debated or questioned; and often the boss is wanting feedback, opinions, looking for ideas and not just order takers.

    Last cultural issue that now many have understood and often is a joke is the nod ‘left to right’ often means ‘ok i understand’ but in the US they would think of it as ‘disagreement’ and at times alarmed, or they would ask ‘is that a yes or a no?’

    • Thanks for sharing the experience. Indians and in fact Asians dealing with American bosses or colleagues do face a lot of culture related misgivings.This is indeed a serious issue which several Indian IT companies are trying to address by consciously training fresh recruits on western culture and expectations.While this is a bigger problem, cultural issues within and among Indians are perhaps easier to handle and tackle. For instance, I could immediately sense the cultural issue in the particular instance quoted in the post and therefore sent a strong message to the team!

  2. I once jointly interviewed an Intern candidate along with a senior of mine, who was one of the most brilliant people I have worked with. He felt she was good enough, where as I felt she was not up to the mark. Despite my propensity to speak my mind often, this one time I deferred to his expertise and we hired her. At the end of the internship, we realized it was a big mistake and had to let her go without offering a full time position. I did not let my manager know what I felt at the time of the interview and it led to 6 months’ waste of one valuble resource as she did not accomplish anything useful.

    • Interesting, Supreeth. It is always helpful to speak our mind in a polite but firm manner, in all situations, instead of regretting later.In fact if you see the other comment to my post, you will see that good bosses are often looking for constructive feedback from colleagues.One has to make a conscious effort to shed one’s cultural baggage!


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