How Are Your Power Distance Skills?

How Are Your Power Distance Skills? by Dr. Greg Waddell

Photo by Wilhelm Joys Andersen, Available at flickr.com

Power Distance is “the extent to which less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.”[1] This insight clarified many of the cross-cultural issues that I had faced in South America. It also applies to some of the cross-cultural dynamics we find in the U.S. workplace today.

Cultures that are high in power distance envision their societies as a pyramid with an apex of authority and a broadening base below. They usually accept the idea that some individuals, classes, or families are at the top of the pyramid and the rest are not.

Cultures with low power distance envision the form of their society as something more akin to a pancake, where all members of the society are fundamentally equal. Of course, some people must occupy a leadership function, but they are viewed as inherently equal.

The culture of Latin America is high in power distance. On the other hand, power distance in the Anglo-American culture is among the lowest in the world, meaning that we tend to be less tolerant or accepting of the unequal distribution of power.

This cultural dimension is measured from the point of view of the follower. In other words, it’s not about an autocratic leader imposing his will on his otherwise unwilling followers. People from high power distance cultures want their leaders to make the important decisions. This fits their idea of what a leader should be. In fact, they may become uncomfortable if the leader tries to delegate decisions that, in their view, the leader should make because that is his legitimate role.

People from cultures that have this belief about their leader’s legitimate possession of power and authority also expect the leader to be a good person. The ideal boss, in such cultures, is one with whom the workers feel comfortable and whom they respect. He is a type of benevolent autocrat or father figure.

It’s not just that these cultures see leadership as a position of authority and privilege; they expect to receive benefit from them. When people from high power distance cultures discover that their leader is uncaring or untrustworthy, their expectations are shattered and they may stage a revolt. Followers are usually unwilling to continue in a situation with a leader who does not fit their image of a powerful yet fatherly leader who will both protect and provide for them.

Cultures that have a high respect for authority generally also have a high respect for parents and the elderly. Children learn early to respect their elders and to depend on them. Families from such societies often see it as perfectly normal for that dependence to continue into adulthood where the opinions and will of the parents continue to play a key role when young families make decisions.

Coming from a culture that sees independence from parents as a moral virtue, I must admit that I felt a certain aversion to this characteristic. Cultural differences often provoke these feelings and, the leader may act them out using denigrating labels like “immature” or “paternalistic.”

Many organizations today are moving toward a flatter organizational structure. You can accomplish this by removing unnecessary links in the chain of command and allowing workers to make more decisions.

When working in a high power distance culture, however, such changes can cause confusion and resistance because it does not fit deeply help assumptions about leadership and power. Americans need to be careful about trying to flatten the chain of command merely because this is the latest management fad. You should only attempt it if there are clear signs that the current hierarchy is not working.

Often, the symptoms of a failing organizational structure will include: (1) slow response time, (2) rigidity toward change, (3) internal frustration, and (5) customer alienation. But, if you don’t see these signs, there is no need to attempt to change the cultural respect for hierarchy.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for a leader working in a high power distance culture today is to find the right combination between leading as the people’s cultural models demand and leading according to the leader’s own core values and organizational strategy.

What do you think? Have you experienced different cultural attitudes toward the leader? How have you responded?

[1] Hofstede, G., and G. J Hofstede. 2005. Cultures organizations, software of the mind: Intercultural cooperation and its importance for survival. 2nd ed. McGraw-Hill.

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