What's in this article?
In 1997, Korean Air 801 flew from Seoul to the Pacific Island of Guam with over 200 Korean tourists. The Boeing 747 smashed into Nimitz Hill by the Fonte River valley. The aeroplane was only 3 miles from Guam airport, killing 288 of the 254 passengers aboard.
Initially, investigators identified the following situation. The crew had an outdated map with a missing hill. There was a light shower at a mild temperature of 26C. Their Distance Measuring Equipment gave a false reading. Also, their captain was fatigued from consecutive flights.
Most baffling to the investigators was the officer's unwillingness to question and challenge their captain's judgement. In his book "Outliers", author Malcolm Gladwell proposed that Korea's cultural hierarchy looks down upon questioning people in authority. Their deeply ingrained cultural values of hierarchy prevented the crew from challenging their fatigued captain.
Be it a hierarchical or a flat organisation, these structures are based on the values of Power Distance.
What is Power Distance?
Power distance refers to the extent to which inequalities between individuals, groups or societies are accepted, sanctioned or legitimate. Inequalities can be differences in power, authority, status or wealth. Societies can range between low to high power distance.
Power Distance was first researched by Geert Hofstede, the founding father of cultural psychology. In the 60s and 70s, Hofstede conducted a large-scale study on IBM employees by having 116,000 managers and employees in over 50 countries respond to a values questionnaire.
As a result, his research was used as a basis to study culture. In 1980, Hofstede published a book called "Culture's Consequence", looking into the extensive national-level analysis of cultural values, including Power Distance. Today, much of his country-level research can be found on his website.
What are High Power Distance cultures like?
Cultures with high power distance tend to value status and emphasise the difference between status.
In a family, children are expected to obey their parents. Likewise, the elderly are seen as wiser and should be respected. In school, a teacher's role is to lecture, and students obey by listening attentively. In the workplace, managers are expected to provide guidance, and their subordinates will defer decisions or instructions to their manager.
Formal communication is the norm for High Powe Distance cultures. People are addressed by their titles. The decisions are deferred to those in authority. Subordinates are expected to follow through with orders and not question them.
If subordinates do challenge or question, there is the fear of retribution or punishment for going against people with power. Likewise, authorities with power are expected to be benevolent and care for their subordinates. As in the case of Korea Air 801, people dare not challenge people in authority even when they are wrong.
Many Asian countries are high power distance cultures. For example, six countries in Asia, namely Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Japan, Malaysia and Thailand, have monarchs. Each with its unique Lèse-majesté laws. Lèse-majesté laws refer to outlawing the defaming, insulting, or threatening of a royal family member. In comparison, some monarchs support their people; other monarchs abuse this law to censor the public and assert their power.
How about Low Power Distance cultures?
Low power distance cultures tend to value equality and treat each other as equals.
In families, it is common to see children contradict their parents. In school, teachers frequently ask for feedback from the students. While in the workplace, the manager's role is to provide consultation for their subordinates.
Low power distance people communicate with informality. People prefer not to be addressed by their status or title. There is a greater degree of independence and autonomy with low power distance. Subsequently, each individual is accountable for their actions. Each person's success is dependent on their effort and motivation.
With a low hierarchy, leaders seek feedback from their employees. Questioning or contradiction from subordinates is welcomed. There is a greater need for communication, collaboration, and coordination to align everyone on the team.
Many Nordic countries are low power distance cultures.
In 1973, during the energy crisis, the King of Norway, King Olva V, rode the public train to go skiing. The train conductor offered the King a free ride, but the King insisted on paying for a ticket in solidarity with the public.
Power Distance Index
One way to determine the power distance is with Hofstede's Power Distance Index. The thing to note is that the Power Distance Index reflects the people's perception of power. It is not an objective measure of power distribution. Here's a lovely infographic by reservations.com
Does Power Distance apply to everyone?
Power Distance is one of the six cultural dimensions robustly discussed in psychology. Because cultural dimensions or characteristics are derived from averages of a social group or country, these scores cannot be applied to describe individuals.
Just because Norway is a low power distance culture does not mean the Norwegians you met are low power distance people. Likewise, a Malaysian might disagree and be unsatisfied with power inequality, even though Malaysia is a culture with the highest power distance score.
The tendency to attribute cultural dimensions to individuals is called Ecological Fallacy. Cultural dimensions are derived from averaging many individual data points from a group. And so, averaging is not meaningful, especially when societies are polarised. Likewise, meeting one Norwegian or one Malaysian does not represent the country or the culture.
Hence, the cultural dimensions of a nation or a group of people should be used as a guide. Be open to considering and anticipate that not everyone you meet from a cultural group fits their cultural dimension.
Power Distance is one of the six cultural dimensions by Hofstede. A deeper understanding of whether a culture is high or low power distance will help you prepare and strategise for your multicultural interaction. Yet, it does not necessarily mean that every person you meet represents the group. Likewise, a culture's power distance is not equally valued by all its members from that cultural group.
Use cultural dimensions, including Power Distance, as a guide, not an instruction manual.