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Power Distance Dimension in Dr. Geert Hofstede's National Culture Model.

Updated: Jul 11, 2023


On this occasion, we will delve further into the cultural dimension of power distance. I will present a perspective based on the experience we, in Conscious Performance GmbH and its scientific Business Unit the Applied Research Institute have gained in intercultural dialogues with professionals who hold leadership positions and represent a sample of over 70 nationalities. I will also share what we have learned over nine years, the implications of this dimension in building high-performing intercultural teams, and the cultural transformation processes in various organizations and institutions from over 70 countries.


Let's start by delving deeper into Dr. Hofstede's research findings regarding this dimension.


The three survey elements used to compose the power distance index come from three precise questions, which I will mention below:

The first question obtained responses from non-managerial employees to the question, "How often, based on your experience, does the following problem occur: employees are afraid to express their disagreement with their superiors?" (Average score on a scale of 1 to 5 from "very often" to "rarely").

The second question obtained data on subordinates' perceptions of the boss's decision-making style. Here we are talking about the percentage that chooses the description of an autocratic or paternalistic style out of four possible styles, plus a "none of the above" alternative.

The third question focused on subordinates' preference for their boss's decision-making style. Here we are talking about the percentage of employees who prefer an autocratic or paternalistic style, or on the contrary, a style based on a majority vote, but not a consultative style.

When analyzing these three questions, we can observe that the first relates to scared employees and the second to autocratic or paternalistic bosses. Both indicate how the respondents perceive their daily work environment. On the other hand, question 3 indicates what the respondents express as their preference, that is, how they would like their work environment to be.

What is particularly fascinating here is the realization that these three questions affirm the close relationship between the reality one perceives and the reality one desires within each culture. This fact is where the dialectical tension between what is and what we wish it to be arises.


The finding that Hofstede discovered


The finding that Hofstede discovered with these three questions was that employees prefer a consultative decision-making style in countries where employees are not seen as fearful or submissive, in combination with bosses that are not usually autocratic or paternalistic. In these countries, it is natural to see a boss consulting their subordinates before deciding.

Regarding countries on the opposite end of the power distance scale, where employees are frequently seen as fearful of disagreeing with their bosses and where these bosses are seen as autocratic or paternalistic, employees in similar positions are less likely to prefer a consultative boss. In this case, many of them prefer bosses who make decisions in an autocratic or paternalistic manner.

What is relevant here is to realize that these scores obtained in the power distance dimension inform us about the dependency relationships in a country. In this context, in countries with low power distance, employees' dependence on bosses is limited, and there is a preference for consultation, that is, interdependence between the boss and the subordinate. Their emotional distance is small, and subordinates quickly approach and contradict their bosses.

 

Perspective based on the experience



In my professional experience, I have witnessed this not only in Germany, where I have lived for over 11 years, but also in Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia to name a few examples. Since my arrival in old Europe, something that caught my attention while working with professionals from these countries, occupying positions at all levels of organizational hierarchy, is that in these low-power-distance cultures, people accept the existence of the boss because it is necessary for someone to fulfill that role, but not as someone who is expected to make autocratic or paternalistic decisions.

The role of a boss remains within the organization or institution because once outside of work hours, the boss is seen as an equal, not someone with a status or superiority over others. For those who feel comfortable in low power distance culture, it is easy for us to express our opinion clearly and directly, even if it contradicts the boss's position. In my particular case, having been born in Mexico, a very hierarchical country where power distribution is very uneven, and bosses are seen as an authority figures not only at work but in other dimensions of family and social dynamics, I was initially surprised by the way communication between boss and subordinate occurs in these countries, but once I understood the dynamics, I felt very comfortable having integrated into this culture and this way of working that I enjoy very much.

Dr. Hofstede's research in-depth


Like many other researchers and intercultural management practitioners, you may have some questions that we all regularly ask ourselves when studying Dr. Hofstede's research in-depth. These questions may include: Has anyone delved deeper into his findings? Were there researchers who challenged them? Are the findings from his original research still valid today?

I answer in the affirmative because there were and still are multiple subsequent research investigations to illustrate this. I will share some findings obtained in one of them by Dr. Bond in the Chinese Values Survey among students from 23 countries.

His study found that students from countries with high scores on power distance responded that the following were particularly important: 1. having few desires, 2. moderation, following the middle path, and 3. remaining disinterested and pure. In unequal societies, ordinary people, like students, felt that they should not aspire beyond their rank. These insights were his finding regarding his study in this type of culture.

On the other hand, students from countries with low scores on power distance responded that the following were particularly important: 1. adaptability and 2. caution or care. These insights mean that in more egalitarian societies, where problems cannot be solved by someone demonstrating power, students saw the importance of being flexible to reach an agreement.

Leaders must have well-developed skills in exercising their authority and power to build high-performance intercultural teams. In the digital era's economic, political, and social context, understanding and reading behavior patterns based on an individual's mental software shaped by their upbringing and education can help avoid misunderstandings in communication and facilitate cooperation within and between teams.

It is important to note that differences in power distance within countries are reflected in specific variables such as social class, education level, and occupation. As part of our insights using Hofstede's findings from his research, we continue confirming that cultural diversity within a team is a robust foundation to drive innovation and create sustainable value in organizations.


Poor management of cultural differences within an organization leads to chaos and inefficiency, risking complex problems that erode trust and positive work energy within and between cross-functional or interdepartmental teams.

This gap in dealing with cultural differences can result in the creation of silos and power games, which ultimately deteriorate levels of commitment or engagement. Understanding the correct handling of power and exercising it with ethics and integrity is the foundation of good intercultural cooperation.


References:

Hofstede, Geert, Hofstede, Gert Jan., Minkov, Michael (2010). Cultures and Organizations, Software of the Mind, Third Revised Edition, USA: McGrawHill.


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