What is Power Distance?
There are hundreds of shelves in libraries and great chunks of memory in server hotels heaving with thoughts about leadership and leadership styles. This post will not and could not possibly be a potted summary of them. Instead I wanted to note what I have noticed about bosses and bring that back to the idea of power distance.
Power distance is a concept that originated with Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede. Hofstede was looking at this concept in terms of different cultures around the globe, but the same concept can also be very usefully applied to our own organisations.
In essence the power distance can be looked at as an index and cultures or organisations ranked a long that index from high power distance to low.
A high power distance culture means, power is distributed very unequally and there is an acceptance that those with power would not accept challenge or indeed input from the less powerful. It is associated with hierarchy and deference. Such cultures would score highly on the index.
Inversely, a low score on the power distance index would mean that a culture sees power as being relatively evenly distributed and that all members have a right, and, possibly, an expectation of them to contribute to the development and maintenance of that culture.
Power distance is an interesting concept in our industry in more than one way.
How is it measured?
Firstly the global aspect of power distance means that you can rank societies along the index. Interestingly, you could assess your own society’s ranking here at Hofstede Insights
On this site you cannot only look at your own countries culture but compare them to others. In the link above I put the UK next to the USA – similar but not the same.
That is a fun exercise for a chilly February Sunday afternoon but then you think about the implications of this in terms of such issues as
– Better understanding of my TNE partners
– What would be the right approach for contract negotiations with this company in country X
– I just don’t understand what is going on with our new acquisition in country Y – no-one takes responsibility for anything!
You can see straightaway how you could apply that understanding in your everyday work and how it could help your organisation make better decisions.
This becomes more interesting when you think of the sales and marketing aspect of using this perception, and why running the same campaign in different cultures may throw up very different results. If you tried pushing a campaign that shows values of inclusivity and collaboration in a society which expects those in charge to show clear, non-consensual leadership, you may well just be chucking your money down the cultural sink.
How does power distance affect us all?
Let’s move on and look at how we can then take the power distance concept and start applying it to our own organisations
By now you will have clicked on the link above, because I told you to do so (we have a high power distance index!). What you will have seen is that power distance in one of six subsets that Hofstede uses to analyse cultures. The full set are:
Power distance – “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally”
Individualism – “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members”
Masculinity – “A high score (Masculine) on this dimension indicates that the society will be driven by competition, achievement and success, with success being defined by the “winner” or “best-in-the-field.” Whereas a low score (Feminine) on the dimension means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life. A Feminine society is one where quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable.”
Uncertainty avoidance – “The extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these”
Long Term Orientation – “how every society has to maintain some links with its own past while dealing with the challenges of the present and future, and societies prioritise these two existential goals differently.”
Indulgence – “the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses, based on the way they were raised. Relatively weak control is called “Indulgence” and relatively strong control is called “Restraint”. Cultures can, therefore, be described as Indulgent or Restrained.”
NB – the definitions above come directly from Hofstede Insights
Organizations are a product of their culture to some extent but that does get messy with some of the multi-national organisations which operate in many different cultures. That being said it is a worthwhile exercise to look at your organisation using these subsets.
Looking at your own organisation
You could do that – with your organisation as a whole, or you could do it in parts – either geographically or departmentally.
For example, the reason why your sales department is in a constant state of friction with your operations department is that they have widely different scores on Uncertainty Avoidance. Or your Canadian operation is at loggerheads with your US team is that they score significantly differently on the Individualism index.
You might not think these cultural aspects that important but remember the theory put forward by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers – where he speculated that a cause of a Korean plane crash was the influence of hierarchy on decision making in the cockpit. Culture matters, big time.
If you reflect on things that have gone awry in your own organisations, how often could the ‘wrongness’ have actually been attributed to cultural differences. It is easy to imagine a scenario where this could happen and bad ideas have gained traction simply because there is a very high score on the power distance index within your organisation.
Within a company the power distance assessment is probably the easiest one to conduct.
Above I mentioned that I carried out an index of Canada using the tool on the Hofstede Insights website. Of Canada it says:
“Canadian culture is marked by interdependence among its inhabitants and there is value placed on egalitarianism. This is also reflected by the lack of overt status and/or class distinctions in society. Typical of other cultures with a low score on this dimension, hierarchy in Canadian organisations is established for convenience, superiors are always accessible and managers rely on individual employees and teams for their expertise. It is customary for managers and staff members to consult one another and to share information freely. With respect to communication, Canadians value a straightforward exchange of information.”
Which is kind of what you’d expect to read about the “True North”
As a matter of contrast I then ran the same exercise for Belarus and a very different picture emerges
“With a very high score of 95, Belarus is a nation where power holders are very distant in society. People in this society accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place, and which needs no further justification. Hierarchy is seen as reflecting inherent inequalities, and the different distribution of power justifies the fact that power holders have more benefits than the less powerful in society. The discrepancy between the less and the more powerful people leads to a great importance of status symbols.”
You can see then what potential difficulties might arise for a Canadian organisation opening a direct sales offices in Minsk and expecting to operate in the same way as their office in Montreal.
Now apply what you learned from your observations about power distance
The index can prove useful down to a granular level. If you have a department made up of many different cultures it is not difficult to see how that could impact on operational efficiency simply because the people within it think differently.
And while we are in the world of departments let’s go back to the idea I mentioned above. Departments can breed their own cultures. This might be because of the types of people working in them. It might be because of the leadership of that department or, most likely, a combination of both.
There will undoubtedly be inter-departmental friction or even clashes if senior organisation leaders don’t bring about understanding between those departments or indeed even gain that level of understanding themselves.
In order to achieve that level of understanding senior leaders should be looking to move themselves along the power distance index. Openness and listening are pretty obvious faculties that need to be used to in order to understand what goes on in departments.
Down to the micro level and there are useful insights that an individual could gain about themselves by applying these indexes to their own personal culture. It could help them see if they think they are the right fit with a team or an organisation. It is also something they should consider when looking at their own personal brand.
Finally then Senior Leadership Team, holding your organisation up to the mirror of these insights would, I think, for most of us bring revelations. It would also help us build better and more effective organisations because we will have better and more effective understanding of the culture which we lead and make. You might learn more about yourself too – never a bad thing.