Cultural Contextualization; Finding the Power Distance Balance in a Diverse World
Power distance is one of the components of Hofstede’s four dimensions that he identified to define the values of national culture in any country. It is usually reported as the power distance index and by looking at the score one can have an external view of people’s perception of power distribution in a certain society.
Today, the dimensions in Hofstede’s model have been increased to six. They are defined relative to the extremes of a particular dimension. And that is how classification is achieved when pinpointing a country’s culture on a scale of 0 – 100
It is either low power distance vs high power distance, individualism vs collectivism, indulgence vs restraint, masculinity vs feminity, high uncertainty index vs Low uncertainty index, and long-term orientation vs short-term orientation.
For today, I will talk about power distance. Remember culture is collective and can be viewed in two ways. One is the invisible values which I identify as the unspoken code of what a certain society is and the visible values which can be seen in people’s practices and how they do things. This is important because high and low power distances can often be identified on both ends most of the time.
So what is power distance?
It is defined by how we view power relations between people in our societies and the extent to which we agree inclusively that power is spread unequally both from those who are in power as well as those who are not.
In high power distance societies, the people in power have the authority often thought to be divinely bestowed and hence cannot be questioned whereas those in low power distance societies often view themselves as participants in the decision-making and have a big voice in questioning the decisions of those in authority.
For example, in Africa where a large percentage of nations are classified as having large power distances, the political sphere plays the visible aspect of the societal value about the exclusivity of power, and interaction with people from those nations gives their invisible perception of what power means to them.
In other countries with fairly large power distances such as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and India among others, the political structure also often provides the first peek into the power distance in those countries. This, most of the time is also depicted in the business atmosphere.
Power distance and the global village concept
Perhaps you have come across the concept of globalization several times in your life and you have agreed that the world is becoming one global village thanks to rapid technological advancements, especially through transport and communication.
One fact though remains that the speed of that change is not being experienced with culture as well. I come from Africa and in most of our countries, we believe in the hierarchy of power. Everyone has their place and that means there is little influence a person at the lowest end of the hierarchy can do on the person at the top of the power hierarchy.
This same culture is seen in the business world where the people at the top of the management ladder are seen to be the authority and the casual worker seemingly has near net zero power. This could be the reason for the poor wages and treatment because partly the culture and system have manipulated us to believe that there is a certain power we have to be given or gain to have a voice.
Then we get an opportunity to interact with people from other societies with low power distances either by traveling there or communicating and we are in awe. All of a sudden, you feel as though you have been empowered with the relative equality of power on one end and the hard reality of a huge inequality of power on the other end. Balancing the two now becomes the issue.
Adapt or be extinct
If you move from a low to high or high to low power distance society, there is a need to adapt. Adapting means understanding the local values and finding a balance, especially for the low to high power distance movement.
Moving from a high to low power distance whereby you were at the lowest of the power hierarchy in the high power distance society, one may find themselves having that psychological understanding that they don’t matter and that may force them to fail to actively participate where their voice is openly appreciated and such, by personal prejudices, mask themselves to oblivion.
Moving from a low power distance to a high power distance and finding yourself at the low end of the power hierarchy in the new context may also come as a shocker since nobody would care about your opinion due to your position and failing to adapt may take a tall order on someone.
But if one is at the high end of the power hierarchy, it becomes a matter of avoiding plunging themselves into the excesses of what comes with that new power as well as failing to use the right approach that may affect the overall organizational culture and thus end up affecting the delivery of results.
The good thing though pertains to the ever-changing shift of culture. Culture can be learned. Culture evolves and as with time, the evenness with power distance may be achieved some time into the future. For now, it is important to understand how power distances play in the various societies we find ourselves in and know how to find a balance between the transitions.
It is okay to be lost for a little while during the change period but also okay to understand that it may not be easy to force our cultural inclinations on others even if we believe they are the right ones. It takes time for change to be accepted, and it takes time for a culture to adapt as well. For now, simply understand that there are countries with large/high power distances and others with low/small power distances and your work is to simply find an adaption.