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Hofstede's Power Distance: Definition, Examples & Quiz

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Shawn Grimsley

The idea of power distance is an important cultural concept. In this lesson, you'll learn about it and be provided an example. You'll also have a chance to take a short quiz after the lesson.

We also recommend watching Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions Theory and Personal Power: Referent and Expert Power

Definition

Power distance is a term that describes how people belonging to a specific culture view power relationships - superior-subordinate relationships - between people including the degree that people not in power accept that power is spread unequally.

Individuals in cultures demonstrating a high power distance are very deferential to figures of authority and generally accept an unequal distribution of power, while individuals in cultures demonstrating a low power distance readily question authority and expect to participate in decisions that affect them.

Power distance is one of the dimensions of Geert Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory. The other dimensions include individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance index, long-term orientation.

Geert Hofstede & the Importance of Power Distance

Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist that focuses his work on the study of cultures across nations. He has published books on culture entitled Culture's Consequence (1980) and Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (1991). His original study of cultural dimensions involved a study of IBM employees from across the world that formed the basis of his cultural dimensions theory. He's important because he helped introduce the idea of cultural differences between people in the business context. Understanding the differences in cultures is becoming ever more important as we continue to become an integrated global economy.

Specifically, how one views power relationships will affect how that person will act in business negotiations, as managers, and as employees. Using a low power distance management or negotiation approach on someone accustom to a high power distance viewpoint may very well backfire and be counter-productive. The reverse is also true.

Power distance is based upon answers to a questionnaire filled out by business employees in each country. A score can range from 1 to 100. A score of greater than seventy is considered being high and a score below forty is considered low. For example, the United States scored at forty, which is considered a low score for power distance, while Guatemala scored an amazing ninety-five indicating a very high score for power distance.

Key Concepts

You can generally divide power distance into high power distance and low power distance. If you belong to a culture displaying high power distance, you will tend to view power as a reality of life and believe everyone has a specific place in the hierarchy of power. You will expect that power will be distributed unequally. You will more easily accept autocratic and paternalistic power relations. If you are a subordinate, you simply acknowledge the power of your superior based merely upon his relative position in the hierarchy of authority. You follow a leader because that is his social position in the family, business or government. Orders are seldom questioned and are followed simply because your role in the hierarchy is to follow orders.

On the other hand, if you belong to a culture that demonstrates a low power distance, you will have other traits. You will expect power relationships to be participatory, democratic and consultative. You view your leader as an equal regardless of his or her formal position or title. You feel you have the right to participate in decision-making and are not afraid to state as such. If you are an American, you probably demonstrate low power distance. You believe you have a right to participate in political and work decisions. Leaders exist to guide and help you, not to order you around. Respect for leaders is earned by leaders rather than an entitlement by right of office or position.

Example

Let's say you are an American citizen working for a multinational company that has just transferred you to a production facility in Guatemala. You are used to treating your employees as relative equals and seeking their participation and thoughts in work matters directly affecting them. You are personable and informal with your employees. Upon moving to Guatemala, you quickly discover that your management techniques do not work and you cannot gain the respect of your workers.

After work, you and a fellow manager head over to the local bar and you ask for some advice since he's been at the facility for a couple of years and appears to be successful. You begin to explain your management approach, but your colleague interrupts you, seeing the problem immediately. He explains to you that your workers expect you to have power over them and expect you to use it. They expect you to give orders to be followed. They are confused by your attempts to be informal and to allow them to participate. Such actions don't match their cultural view of power relations and has caused them to question your authority because you are not acting like a person with authority. You need to adjust the way you manage your new employees in light of the cultural differences.

Summary

Power distance is one of five cultural dimensions developed by Geert Hofstede. It basically measures how a culture views power relationships between people.

Cultures demonstrating high power distance view power as distributed unevenly, according to a hierarchy of authority. Individuals in this culture will tend to accept authoritative or paternalistic power structures.

Cultures demonstrating low power distance will tend to view power as a participatory, democratic or consultative process. Individuals view leaders as equals regardless of formal positions and may expect the right to participate in decision-making.

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