Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you found yourself challenging authority or someone in a superior position to yourself, but were intimidated to do so? You were probably in a high power distance culture or at the very least, in a situation with very high power distance.
What is Power Distance?
The concept comes from a Dutch psychologist by the name of Geert Hofstede. Hofstede developed what became the Power Dimensions Theory to measure and quantify differences between cultures on a set of criteria. One of these dimensions is power distance, which is how big the difference is between a culture’s leadership and that of its subordinates. The concept has since been used and promoted to facilitate greater communication between different cultures. It is not without its critics and detractors, like all models, but for the purposes of this post, it shall suffice.
In greater depth, power distance is defined as how society views superior-subordinate relationships and how much people are willing to accept the idea of power not being equally spread equally. High power distance cultures are ones where there is a very high tolerance for inequality in terms of power, while low power distance cultures have a very low tolerance for huge differences in power. Hofstede originally when taking surveys of power distance used a series of questionnaires to determine power distance.
The questions asked were:
- Willingness to express disagreement with immediate superiors
- Perception of their superior’s management style (4 styles and an option of “none” were allowed, one of which was autocratic)
- Subordinates preferences for their management style
If you are interested in pursuing this topic in greater depth, I would recommend the books by Hofstede.
High Power Distance
In high power distance cultures, hierarchy is accepted as a part of life. Individuals will unfailingly obey what the perceived legitimate authority says, even when they know if said information is not correct. Subordinates find it intimidating to directly challenge authority. High power distance cultures are characterized by their very strong (and often rigid) hierarchies.
People who hold power are often entitled to very special privileges (the adage “rank has its privileges” is apt here). Their privileges are seldom, if ever questioned by their subordinates who view this as the “natural order” of society. That may include special treatment, respect, or other privileges that lower ranking subordinates do not have.
High power distance societies tend to have a high built-in tolerance for economic and social inequality. That may be an extension of the “privileges” that the leaders in high power distance cultures have. There is a tendency to believe that everyone has a “rightful place” in society and that is not to be questioned.
Leaders and authority figures in high power distance societies generally except unquestioned obedience. They are also unafraid to distribute punishment where their subordinates are not compliant; indeed they view doing so as their right and duty to do so. Leaders must show a certain “cult of personality”, where they “know” what to do when faced with an uncertain situation. While being humble may be admirable in low power distance cultures, admitting that one does not know to do so leads to a loss of respect in a high power distance culture. I’ve noted before that saying I don’t know is a scary idea – in a high power distance society it is a truly intimidating experience for both leaders and subordinates when facing leaders.
Low Power Distance
One of the things that I have noticed about leaders when they are in low power distance cultures is that they always try to underplay their authority. They want to be seen as a “first amongst equals”, and in many cases not even that. When exercising power, leaders from low power distance cultures generally try not to look powerful next to their subordinates; indeed doing so is frowned upon in such cultures.
Leaders who are autocratic or over-patronizing will very quickly be rejected by the collective, which decides in a far more democratic manner. Leaders who exercise their authority in an excessive manner will be looked upon as excessively overbearing leaders, and whose leadership abilities are questionable. Also, in a low power distance culture, for leaders to admit that they do not know is often viewed as better.
Often to arrive at a decision, rather than the leader making a firm decision, there is an attempt to build a consensus through a more egalitarian decision making system. At the very least, at least some consultation from subordinates will be made.
When talking with subordinates, leaders will also tend to be blunt or “down to earth”. Managers tend to trust their team to get tasks done.
Why is high power distance such a bad thing?
Have you ever had a boss at work that micromanaged your every move? In a high power distance culture, you cannot do much about it.
Although true that high power distance cultures do encourage people to develop relationships (“Guanxi” is an example in China), this is not nearly as effective as a low power distance culture, where the subordinate can give more frank feedback. In a high power distance culture, although the subordinate can attempt to build rapport in exchange for favours later in life, it remains still a very one way relationship. The boss always has the option to decline no matter what the subordinate does and it encourages the subordinates to only present good news rather than actual news to the leadership for fear of the boss. The other problem with Guanxi is that it leaves a greater opportunity for nepotism.
One of my critiques of Anglo culture is that Power Distance is higher than I would like. You can probably tell that I am very critical of cultures with even higher power distances, as the Anglo cultures generally rank in the middle or even lower-middle in terms of power distance, despite being individualistic cultures. The reason why I am critical of even Anglo cultures is because of their high power distance. Americans, for example, often pride themselves on their individualism. Yet surveys find that America is a surprisingly conformist culture. This is also reflected to in advertising where images of rebellion are often provoked, but consumers of such products and services are actually supporting the very system that the advertisement claims to be opposing. In many ways, modern advertising is an appeal to conformity, no matter what the actual message says, they are trying to sell you the product or service. I would argue that both of these are a product of a moderate power distance level culture and that Anglo society would be well served by a low power distance culture.
The problem is even worse in higher power distance societies. A while back, one of my mentors made an observation when he taught students from South Asia\n and East Asian nations, which typically have high power distances. They were afraid to ask questions to him. They were also afraid to contradict him, even when they knew he had made an error or overlooked an important issue. That can be a huge problem elsewhere. In a classroom setting, the worst consequence could be that a student has a question and it remains unanswered, dulling that person’s sense of curiosity. There could be more lethal consequences though. What if there was a situation where having said knowledge could have saved lives?
To give a real world example, what if a leader in a demanding situation were to make a huge mistake and not have any subordinates admit it? A famous real world example might be the collision between the HMS Victoria and the HMS Camperdown, which was commanded by Vice-Admiral George Tryon. Tryon had the overbearing personality that one would expect in high power distance cultures and his officers, either failed to raise objections or blindly obeyed – with lethal consequences. Although Tryon undoubtedly deserves much of the blame, another question becomes how could his team officers (many of which were highly experienced) blindly obey? This subject is discussed in the book Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan. I would argue that a high power distance culture encourages such willful blindness. The UK today may not be a high power distance culture (moderate power distance), but Tryon undoubtedly encouraged very high power distance behaviour.
Elsewhere, others have written about the cultures of high power distance in Korea and Malaysia. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers has written about the poor safety record of Korean airlines. He noted that the co-pilots were afraid to challenge their pilots and that even when they knew that they had made lethal mistake, they were unwilling to do so. Others have written about the poor safety records of Malaysian airlines. This hypothesis however has been criticized elsewhere. At the very least, high power distance does not appear to be positively correlated with safety. I do have a hypothesis – perhaps it is because in high power distance cultures, bosses view themselves as above (as in “better”) than their subordinates and feel that such matters like safety are beyond them.
Another huge problem is that high power distance can lead to entrenched inequality. Writing in the book, The Spirit Level, Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett give a set of statistics implying that not just the poor, but even the very wealthy are worse off in societies with high levels of economic inequality. They become more status obsessed and anxious. Power distance entrenches inequality and enables acceptance. Unfortunately for such nations, it does not enable a mitigation of the problems caused by inequality. Inequality as it turns out is very bad for a great many things – health, social trust, life expectancy, crime, violence, and the very fabric of society. It is in everyone’s interest, including the well off, to reduce inequality.
Looking at the chart that sorts nations by Power Distance, I do see a correlation between nations which are more “male dominated”, and I would argue, promote outright misogyny. I’m not going to name nations to avoid offending, but it would be interesting to see a study there. This is significant in that women’s education and empowerment is very important for the economic development of nations. I suspect that it is not a coincidence that the nations that do the most to encourage women’s rights also top the living standards. It is probably why you see the Nordic nations dominate so frequently. I am not saying that such nations are perfect (having had colleagues, classmates, and other acquaintances from those nations, they would be the first to say otherwise), but overall they do seem to do better on the living standards charts. I will also note that the Nordic nations all have very low power distances. Equally interesting to me to would be to see how social trust correlates with power distance.
All in all, I would hypothesize that power distance is very bad for society with few (if any) benefits.
The case for lower power distance
Have you ever worked with a boss that tried to treat you as a near peer? They were your boss yes, but you could contradict them, ask them questions without fear of reprisal, and made themselves overall pleasant? That is a product of low power distance.
To begin with, lower power distance can avoid most of these flaws that high power distance culture has. Low power distance encourages critical thinking, leaders who do not abuse their power, and a more egalitarian culture. Many of the infamous blind obedience cases would likely have been avoided because there would be two eyes on the scene. Such incidents would require that both eyes independently thinking overlook the same thing at the same time. The other problems, like economic inequality are far more likely to be challenged in a low power distance, rather than accepted as a natural way of things. Other problems like groupthink would not be nearly as big a deal where an independent thinker would be able to challenge the leader or the group.
As I hinted with groupthink and the example of George Tryon, blind obedience is a huge problem with high power distance cultures. Tryon demanded absolute obedience and created a very high power distance culture. To ask another question – have you ever found yourself in a situation with a customer service mentality where the rules and policies clearly made no sense, but the person who worked for the company insisted on blindly following those orders? They probably had to. A lower power distance culture would in many cases allow for greater latitude.
Not only can the flaws of high power distance be avoided, but also there are other benefits. As indicated before, lower power distance means greater egalitarianism. The data described in The Spirit Level strongly suggest that such societies will be healthier and happier places, even for those who would be at the top in high power distance cultures. In an article for Fast CoExist, Alexander Kjerulf has argued that low power distance is one of the reasons why Danish workplaces are happier places than American workplaces, further increasing my argument for a lower power distance in Anglo societies.
Does power distance have flaws? Certainly, there is a tendency to build a consensus at all times. That can lead to an impasse where decisions need to be made. I would argue that this is the lesser evil though compared to an authoritarian system where subordinates have little to no rights, and where what the leader says goes. It is best to at least hear out people’s opinions more than anything else. It may also have benefits too, like preventing the groupthink I described earlier. Perhaps one way to mitigate this would be to teach the ideas of critical thinking and credibility to children at a very young age. I will discuss this greater depth in a future post.
I think though overall, the benefits of low power distance vastly outweigh any of the drawbacks and firmly believe the world would be better with a very low level of power distance. Low power distance is not a magic cure-all for all of the world’s challenges and should not be considered as such, but the world would be a better place overall.
Conclusions and future thoughts
As indicated, I believe that the world would be a much better place with very low power distance.
I wonder if there is something akin to the “Moral Flynn Effect” for power distance, where higher intelligence will, on average, lead to a lower power distance culture. In that case, lower power distance will occur with improved education.
It has been said that my generation Y, is more egalitarian. I suspect that if you were to measure power distance across Western nations, you would find that Generation Y is consistently lower in power distance than previous generations. Assuming this is true (and it remains an “if”), I consider this a very encouraging development. I am hopeful on what this means for the future and that someday, we will look at high power distance much like we do on feudal aristocracies, a dark and unfortunate legacy of our past. I am not saying that a low power distance culture will solve all of our problems, but it would be a huge step forward.
Perhaps someday living in a low power distance society may be considered as important a right as freedom of speech.