Would you correct your boss if she made a mistake?

Prof Meyer’s chart on cultural differences among countries – Malaysia is very hierarchical and decisions are made top-down. So, basically, it’s going to be difficult to correct someone higher up. — The Culture Map/ERIN MEYER

The nine-year-old had a chance to learn something this week when she realised that her teacher said something wrong. The mistake was relatively innocuous – it was simply a misreading of the question – but because it was maths, and even though the working was correct, the answer was absolutely wrong.

What should she have done next? What do you do when you see somebody has done something wrong?

Well, nothing. That’s effectively what the nine-year-old chose to do at first. That’s also what the other 30 or so kids in the online class also chose to do – they didn’t correct the teacher.

And it’s pretty much what many adults also choose to do when they have to decide whether to tell their boss he/she is wrong.

In a study by Megan Reitz and John Higgins, two Britain-based researchers, more than 1,500 healthcare employees were asked how often people would speak up if they saw something wrong happen or if something could be improved.

Unsurprisingly, it depended on how high up the hierarchy they thought the person was. In particular, only 59% of junior respondents thought that other junior employees would “usually, nearly always or always” speak up about issues of malpractice, whereas they felt 70% of the senior employees would do so.

Reitz and Higgins hypothesise that the reason why people stay quiet is power – “Power differences translate into fearing the consequences of speaking up, especially being socially outcast.” They have found through research across many countries that people don’t speak up because they fear being perceived negatively. The next most quoted reason is fear of upsetting (or embarrassing) another person.

The researchers said that people have two main considerations before they say something. First, it depends on how certain you feel you are correct. Second, it depends on what you think the consequences of speaking up would be. Certainly, there’s no point being right if you are going to be shouted down or ignored.

How people around you react depends on what the social norms are. Different countries do things differently.

For example, consider how a student addresses a teacher. In Malaysia, it’s usually “Cikgu” or “Cikgu” followed by their name. The teacher is (almost) always right and should always be treated with the utmost respect. However, in Scandinavian countries, it’s normal to call teachers by their first names, much like you would address a friend, and it’s not unusual to disagree or debate with a teacher.

So how you would tell people they are wrong depends on where in the world you are. Erin Meyer, a professor at Insead Business School, has done a lot of work to map out the differences in culture among countries (see her Culture Map above). In particular, Malaysia is identified as being very hierarchical (there is clearly a boss who gives orders, and everybody has a place under that), and decisions are made top-down. If you’re a student trying to tell a teacher he/she is wrong, you should also know that communication is high-context (messages are not always directly said, they are implied), and there is a tendency to avoid confrontation. So if you disagree with somebody in authority and you want to speak up, you don’t usually say it straight to their face, and when you do, there are many layers to it.

The thing is, I am seeing less and less of that on social media right now. People are beginning to just say things more directly. Yes, it’s the Internet and so people feel less constrained to be polite anyway. But I saw a conversation between an e-delivery rider and the International Trade and Industry Ministry (Miti) on Twitter, and he used the word “bodoh” to describe the policy of closing auto workshops (because he couldn’t get his vehicle serviced anywhere). Miti said that fell under the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry, and then reminded the person to watch their language.

And then there was a bevy of responses to that, including several Very Rude Words that I shall not repeat here. People were presumably angry that the official answer was basically that the issue was “somebody else’s problem”. A lot of vitriol was directed at the minister. There was nothing Asian about the candour of the replies, and the language was most definitely confrontational.

Using foul language was certainly not the advice meted out to the nine-year-old. In the end, she tried to ask the teacher through the chat to explain the answer to the question again (in the hope he would catch his mistake). Unfortunately, he didn’t respond at the time.

The next day, there was another mistake in a game set by a different teacher. Basically, a correct answer was marked as wrong. This was another chance to try and “speak truth to power”, as it were.

And this time the nine-year-old decided to do something different. She did the quiz again, answered that one question incorrectly to get the 100% score she wanted, took a screenshot, and sent it to the teacher highlighting the mistake.

Was it a more direct way to say what she wanted? Yes. But sometimes if people won’t listen when you say it nicely, you might have to try something else.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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