Can you talk directly to your manager’s boss? Can you make decisions autonomously? Is the boss always right (even if they’re not)? Can you challenge your manager’s ideas during a discussion? Can you express your opinions in a meeting freely?
Those and many other responses may differ depending on which cultural background you are coming from and what socialisation process you have been through. Today we will have a look at another cultural values dimension identified in research by Cultural Intelligence Center.
What does a high and low Power Distance mean?
Power distance is the extent to which differences in status and power are expected and accepted. The spectrum goes from low power distance to high power distance. Again, as always with those dimensions, you’re never one or the other. Rather, your natural preference for a certain communication and interaction style falls somewhere in between and the key is to understand where it is in comparison to the people you’re working with, especially if some challenges arise in your cooperation.
If you find yourself in a low power distance culture or working with people with that preference, you can expect that people will be more informal in communicating with each other, the titles wouldn’t be as important, you are likely to be fine addressing people by their first names, even if they are far more senior than you. It’s also more common to be able to ‘skip the hierarchy level’ and ask for things directly from people two or three levels above you in the organisation. In meetings you will probably be more expected to speak up, express your opinions, even if they may differ from the ones expressed by your manager or client. Your opinion in many of those cultures is also very likely to matter and be taken into consideration – the assumption is that you are the person ‘on the ground’ and managers may sometimes be a bit more detached from the day to day operations and therefore need your inputs. A CEO does not necessarily need to have the typical attributes of power (an expensive watch, car, suit etc), it’s acceptable for them to wear jeans and T-shirt and still be treated with respect. According to research, countries like the Denmark, Netherlands, Austria are very close to the low power distance side of this dimension.
On the other side of the spectrum we would have the high power distance cultures. In those environments it could be a big faux pas to address your superior by their first name or even to contact them directly. You would usually speak and negotiate with people on the same level as yourself and report back one level above you so that your managers can take the discussions further. Titles, job names and seniority (both age and within the company) are important. You can take a good guess by people’s attributes to know who is the boss – they will probably have an expensive car, jewellery, clothes. In meetings, you are unlikely to speak up unless asked for an opinion, and even then, you are expected not to disagree with the boss. The assumption is that the boss is the one making ultimate decisions, and should be able to make them – otherwise, why would they be the boss if they don’t know their stuff… Based on cross-cultural research, countries which are closer to the high power distance end of this spectrum include for example Japan, China, Nigeria, China, Saudi Arabia.
As you know, it’s rarely just one or the other, the dimensions are spectrums rather than boxes where you fit into one or the other. You can therefore find that your preference isn’t quite in line with what the research says about your country. It may be because of the company culture you are used to, because you maybe lived abroad for a while or travelled extensively, or perhaps your upbringing included values which were not the ‘average’ country values. In either case, it’s crucial to realise that there are differences between people and have your radar up high in international work situations to make sure you pick up on those differences before minor misunderstandings become major issues.
Where the Power Distance matters
This dimension orientation may impact many aspects of our international work and life, but here are two examples to illustrate how deep those values may go.
Imagine that you are in a low power distance culture. There is one team member who has just arrived to that culture for the first time, with their natural preference and upbringing being in high power distance culture. Low power distance orientated team members could discuss, express opinions, challenge each other, the manager would pick up on the best ideas and offer their guidance, which could then be further challenged by the team members. Perhaps the team would need expert advice and so one of them would email or call one of the directors to get their expertise and guidance. They would all call each other by their first name, regardless of seniority, they would make decisions together then and there in a meeting.
Without proper awareness and preparation, how confusing this could be for our high-power-distance-oriented team member!
From their perspective this can look as chaos, complete lack of respect for managers and authority. Challenging ideas of your manager in public is just a massive values conflict, something that this person would never dare to do in their previous context. With that approach, attitude and values in mind, this colleague may end up sitting back and observing, not contributing to the meeting as it could have been expected by the other team members. He could also not be as efficient because for him it’s rude and unprofessional to connect with a director 3 levels above them directly for expert advice, so going level by level would naturally take more time. If he does not adapt his behaviour, he can be perceived as passive follower, not taking initiative, unprofessional.
In a reverse situation, if a low-power-distance-oriented colleague would start behaving in the same way as ‘back home’ in a high power distance culture, imagine how harmful this would be to the harmony of that team! If one person suddenly starts challenging ideas of others’ in public! If they start reaching out to very senior colleagues or clients directly as if they were equals! The same behaviour which was professional, expected, and rewarded in their culture, could be the direct reason for humiliation, loss of face or even being fired in the higher power distance culture.
Of course these are examples of two extremes, in most cases the differences could be more subtle, so you need to be aware of those to properly react and adapt your behaviour where needed for better effectiveness of your work.
This dimension is also crucial for leaders and managers to be aware of. How you gain trust and authority in a low and high power distance cultures is completely different.
In a low power distance culture, as a leader, you are expected to consult with your teams and colleagues, and take their opinions into consideration. Very often, though not always, those cultures are also more consensual in their decision-making processes, which means it’s not just one person making the final call and taking responsibility, but rather, it’s a team effort to get all the necessary information to make the best decision. You can often find an open-door policy in those cultures, you as a leader could be speaking to people at any level in the organisation, depending on the situational need. Your age wouldn’t necessarily matter in terms of holding a certain position, you could be a 23-year-old manager and if you do your job well this would be fine.
In high power distance cultures, if you’d use the above leadership style to lead people, you could be perceived as weak, untrustworthy and would probably not hold on to your position for very long. You would also be unlikely to be in a managerial position if you are too young or in the company for not long enough. Here you would be expected to guide people, give clear instructions, be able to make decisions independently (after all you are the manager so you should know stuff, right?). You’re most likely to only ever be in touch directly with people on your level +-1 when discussing any issues or making decisions.
Look how many different skills you need to have in your toolkit to lead people across cultures! What works in your own cultural and organisational setting may not be as effective if you move into a different context.
Read about other dimensions as well!
How to work with those differences?
There are many levels on which this dimension can make a difference. After all, the ability or inability to challenge authority can be very strongly ingrained in us as ‘right, acceptable’ or ‘wrong, unacceptable’. And when it is, it’s no longer a conversation about behaviours but rather about internal values. What are some tips you can use when working with someone with a preference from the other side of the spectrum?
If your preference is clearly higher power distance than the person you’re working with:
- Don’t necessarily put so much value and attention to titles, formalities and hierarchy
- Be ready for your ideas to be challenged in public, also by people who are lower in hierarchy
- Include people in the decision making process, ask for their opinions as you may find out many useful things from them directly
If your preference is clearly lower power distance than the person you’re working with:
- Don’t jump hierarchy levels when making decisions or asking for opinions
- Do not challenge people in public, if you don’t agree with something you can try having this conversation separately 1:1 – be aware of the concept of losing face
- Be careful as to how much information or support you need from your teams – if you are asking for their inputs too much and are not making decisions independently enough you may be perceived as weak leader