What is Power Distance?

by Brandi Moore on October 31, 2006

Power distance is a way to explain the handling of differences between groups existing in a system. It reflects a culture’s attitude towards human inequality.  In business, it defines itself  through a manager subordinate relationship.

Where low power distance is present, managers and subordinates have egalitarian relationships with access to near equal levels of power. Dutch organizations are known world wide for having very low power distance.  Recruiters seek them out for their strength in collaboration and driving consensus between cross cultural teams.  These traits are available from Dutch managers because they practice consensus again and again on a daily basis. In Dutch organizations, managers do not make decisions, they lead teams to make them or management by direction it is called.  Different styles for different preferences.

The US has mild power distance inside its society.  We would not expect to see our President waiting at an ATM machine on the side of the road, we look to management for direction (management by objective).  Most organizations have decisive managers who drive their staff to meet targets identified by the organization.  There is an exception to this preference found inside technology companies. In these organizations, low power distance thrives inside flattened organizational models where levels of hierarchy are reduced by creating top-light teams composed of equal standing members.

Making assumptions about shared power distance preferences can be a disaster in india cross cultural communication.  In India, managers asking for feedback on performance is viewed with question and clouded with doubt:

Why would he ask me how he is doing?  He is the boss?

India’s culture prefers high power distance inside its hierarchical organizations where the boss makes decisions and decides who will deliver.  He assigns tasks not responsibilities.  There is a clear difference.

India Management Suggestions to Manage Power Distance:

  • Begin managing India relationships with the assumption that high power distance and hierarchical
    structures are present.
  • Expect a more formalized structure for communication between Indian managers and subordinates.
  • Use techniques that divvy out tasks and monitor progress.  Managers should provide a detailed roadmap for employees to follow when performing tasks.
  • Avoid creating forums that thrive in low power distance environments. Researchers believe that Indian colleagues may criticize and more importantly distrust a US manager acting with low power distance principals. Requesting for feedback on your performance may send an indication of weak leadership (see above)

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