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How 'Power Distance' shapes training sessions and leadership

February 6, 2017

 

You just got done with giving your Global Sales Training or your Technical Services Course.  Everything went well, and all in all you are quite satisfied.  The participants came from many different countries, as there were some from Israel, the United States, Sweden, China, Singapore and India.  As you reflect on the participation, you realize that the attendees from the United States and Israel, together with the two women from Sweden, mainly dominated the discussions.  On the other hand, the participants from China, Singapore and India mostly listened or took a few notes.  You know from their written input that the attendees from the Eastern countries had a lot to say; they wrote down brilliant ideas but did not share them during the discussion sessions.  You wonder why. 

Read more about working in global teams

 

You wonder whether this might have to do with them not speaking English very well.  But this cannot be the real reason, at least for the Indian participants.  If you only knew why there was such a gap in the participation during the discussions. Coming to an understanding of different cultures and how they interact within themselves and towards others, can be achieved on different levels.  One of them is to look at the Power Distance in different cultures.  The name was originally termed by Geert Hofstede in the 60s.

 

Hofstede analyzed the culture of a society and measured the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions, such as members of families, accept and even expect that power be distributed unequally.  In other words, to what extent is hierarchy and inequality assumed appropriate and normal within a society?

 

 In a high power distance culture the individuals believe and accept that authority and power are facts of life.  They learn that everybody has a rightful place in society, and that not everybody is equal.  Students are expected to be obedient towards their teachers and professors, as they are expected to be respectful towards their parents.  How much children learn in school depends upon the quality of their teachers; the emphasis is more on rote learning and mimicking the teacher than on individual critical thinking.  Children are not encouraged to make their own decisions in career choices, jobs or financial investments.

 

For low power distance cultures on the other hand equality is much more valued than in a high power distance society.  For example, students tend to interact with their professors more like peers; people call each other by their first names, and children are given personal choices rather than having their parents decide for them. The goal for parents and teachers is to encourage the children to think for themselves, and even allow that they question their authority to a certain degree.  In a low power distance society students are expected to actively participate in class, not just sit there and listen.

 

High power distance countries include Malaysia, Guatemala, Panama, Philippines, Mexico, Venezuela, Arab countries, Ecuador, Indonesia, India, China, Japan, Korea and West Africa.

 

Low power distance countries include the U.S., Austria, Israel, Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, Netherlands, Canada, and Scandinavia. Low power distance cultures are largely Anglo cultures.

 

No culture has a pure high or low power distance.  There is always a certain degree of the other element to be found.  The question is, however, how much a society leans to the one or the other side. Since the times of Hofstede, much has changed in many societies, yet there is still a difference of power distance from culture to culture.  Let’s com e back to the training example and the different levels of participation during discussion sessions.  The United States, Israel and Sweden are good examples of low power distance societies.  It is not surprising, then, that those workshop participants from these countries have no difficulty expressing themselves in front of other attendees.  Singapore, China and India on the other side are examples of high power distance cultures.  Individuals from those countries have a harder time explaining their ideas in a plenum.

 

How can you bridge these differences of power distance?  If you come from a low power distance culture and have to work with persons from a high power distance culture, you should give clear and explicit directions what you expect from them.  In the example of the training, you can tell the participants that your goal is to incite participation and sharing of ideas, not talking in a general sense.  When you are a member of a high power distance society and have to deal with members of a low power distance culture, then do not expect to be treated with the same respect and reverence as you enjoy in your own culture.  People of a low power distance society will approach you in an informal manner, often with little protocol or etiquette.

 

In today’s global business environment it is not enough to be either a low-power-distance leader or a high-power-distance leader. You may find yourself training or leading a team with both Americans, Israelis, Chinese and Indians. You need to develop the flexibility that will enable you to manage up and down the cultural scale. Often this means learning the basics of cultural differences. It means observing and listening. Identify what makes local leaders successful. It means frequently explaining your own cultural style. It may even mean learning to laugh at yourself. But ultimately it means learning to lead in different ways in order to motivate and mobilize groups that follow in different ways from the folks back home.

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February 6, 2017

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