As a young adult, did you automatically do what your parents and teachers told you, respecting their experience and authority? Or did you go your own way? The answer to this question may tell us something about your national cultural identify!
Previously, we discussed the differences between masculinity and femininity in a culture setting, and today we are going to look at another one of Hofstede’s national culture dimensions: High versus low power distance.
This concept is essentially about the distribution of power. Power distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of a culture accept and also expect that power to be distributed unequally. Unsurprisingly therefore, in high power distance cultures there is more likely to be an acceptance and respect towards displays of authority and less interaction and negotiation between hierarchical levels.
When I was working in Singapore, a high power distance culture, I had a good friend who never left the office before 7:30pm. Considering that we started work at the same time (around 8) and I’d be already well out of the office and in the gym by 5, I admired her work ethic and assumed she must have been incredibly busy. But one evening when we were having drinks after a particularly long week and I asked her what she’s been doing in the office so late, she replied: "I was just waiting for my boss to leave, while I was playing games on my computer"(social media had of course been blocked on all staff computers). It turns out, no one ever left before the senior managers did. And if the senior managers had a particularly busy day, no one left even if they were done with their work hours ago. When I asked her if this was an official rule, she said no – it was just the expectation and the norm, something that was never overtly addressed but very much what everyone did without question.
So, what does this anecdote tells us? For sure, high power distance cultures have some challenges. In the above-mentioned scenario, no one is benefiting: the employees are tired and unfocused, and while they don’t outwardly question the authority, they can still resent it. And what manager needs that as an added stress in a busy time? In general, in high powered cultures people may be less likely to question and challenge situations where they can see areas for improvement, and less likely to admit when they do not understand the reasons why. So, these would be the areas for managers to particularly watch out for, and for companies to address specifically in their company values statements.
However, at the same time – there are some distinct advantages to high powered cultures. Singapore didn’t become a developed nation in a record speed of 30 years without a reason, and culture – including the high-power distance - played an incredibly big part. In high power countries and organisations, once a plan or strategy has been set out in motion, employees will be more likely to just get the job done, not wasting precious time and resources arguing in circles, or bending the rules to suit them. They will also be more likely to accept rules and regulations as just how you do things, which is particularly crucial when it comes to quality and safety performance.
Just as it was the case when we discussed femininity and masculinity, whether your culture is high power or low power is not a value statement. What it is though is an indication of your strength and weaknesses – and then it is your job to address them and get the most out of the tools you have.
China, India, the Arab world – these are all cultures that are traditionally high power. And interestingly for me, I’ve done a complete reversal going from one of the lowest scoring low power countries like Denmark, to one of the highest ones, the UAE. And what I can say is what I’ve learned in Singapore: the challenges are same same…but different.