Power distance is a cultural factor that can often cause confusion in cross-cultural situations. I thought we’d take a quick look at some of its implications.
Power distance essentially refers to the relationship between people in authority and people not in authority. It asks the question, how much respect and obedience do I show the person in authority above me?
In hierarchical societies, power distance tends to be larger. In other words, if the leader says jump, you jump. In societies which value equality and a more horizontal picture of authority, if the leader says jump, you might ask “why?”
This factor often correlates with individualism vs collectivism factors. In an individualistic society, there is likely to be low power distance. In a collective society, there is likely to be high power distance. I’m not sure how this relationship works entirely, but that’s what the research shows. For some reason, in my mind, I would have thought it was the other way around.
Another way of thinking of power distance is by asking the question, what is the role of the law? In low power distance societies, the law is king. Everyone, no matter what their title or status, is expected to obey the same law. Australia is a very good example of this. We have a high intolerance for anyone trying to cheat their way around laws and especially if they are in positions of authority (think of any scandal with any politician or celebrity in court).
In societies with high power distance, the king is the law. This means that often there are different rules for those in authority. They might have more privileges and less consequences and that’s considered ok, because that is seen as their entitlement in the status they have. For those of us from low power distance societies, that can seem very unfair. Funnily enough, in high power distance societies they can tend to be more relaxed with uncertainty. They trust the authorities to make the hard calls for them.
Where all of this really comes to a head is when you have cross-cultural teams who are from a mixture of high and low power distance cultures. For example, imagine a team where the leader was high power distance and the group members were low power distance. There is no doubt that without understanding this, there is a very high chance the leader would feel disrespected and the group members would think that the leader was very bossy. If you flip that scenario around to a high power distance team with a low power distance leader, you would find that the leader would be confused as to why his team didn’t want to relax and be social and collaborate, and the team would think their leader was weak and unable to make strong decisions.
This can also affect relationships between companies and organisations. The word “partnership”, for example, can have very, very different meanings based on expectations of power distance. This is where quite a few not-for-profit partnerships come unstuck. One organisation might expect the other to make all the decisions, or provide all of the resource, whereas the other might be expecting a more collaborative approach.
This blog post is becoming a bit of a lengthy one, so let me just finish with an example that came from a book I reviewed a while ago. There was a missionary from a western low power distance society who went to serve in Nigeria (high power distance). Because he didn’t want to stand out and wanted to fit in with his new community, he decided his mode of transport would be a bicycle. However for the Nigerian ministers he was working with, this was considered unacceptable. They insisted he should buy a Peugeot, because he was in a position of authority and it was important for his reputation as a leader.
So have a think about your country-what is the power distance in your culture? How does it affect your perception of the actions others take? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments 🙂
P.s. As a practical tip, some people have two sets of business cards-those for low power distance (keep it simple) and those for high power distance (add in all the titles and acronyms you can).