CQ – How are we different? Part Four – Power Distance

As we continue this series on cultural dimensions, today we are going to look at power distance. This is an aspect of culture that can cause a lot of trouble if not understood well. So let’s just jump in.

Power Distance is the extent to which differences in power and status are expected and accepted. A person with Low Power Distance prefers to forego formalities, titles aren’t important, and he/she may find appropriate ways to challenge authority, in general, more egalitarian. A person with High Power Distance prefers to follow the chain of command and is less likely to question authority; usually this culture is more hierarchical.

When coming from an egalitarian/low power distance culture, often a leader will act as part of the team. In some cultures, the boss or professor might even expect first names to be used and no titles. However, this can really confuse people from hierarchical/high power distance cultures. Titles and the chain of command are very important.

In businesses, this can mean a person from a Western egalitarian culture will have some leadership challenges if transferred to work in an office set in a hierarchical culture. It just won’t work to be a “part of the team.” The “team” will expect more input and clear chain of command to be used.

In education, children coming from hierarchical cultures will have been taught NOT to disagree with a teacher, not to ask questions. If the teacher comes from an egalitarian culture and is taught to “learn with the student,” she may not be prepared to help a student who doesn’t ask questions or speak up in class. It helps to understand where the students are coming from.

Consider this chart taken from a book I highly recommend, The Culture Map by Erin Meyer.[1]

General traits of egalitarian cultures: General traits of hierarchical cultures:
It’s okay to disagree with the boss openly even in front of others. An effort is made to defer to the boss’s opinion especially in public.
People are more likely to move to action without getting the boss’s okay. People are more likely to get the boss’s approval before moving to action.
If meeting with a client or supplier, there is less focus on matching hierarchical levels. If you send your boss, they will send their boss. If your boss cancels. Their boss also may not come.
It’s okay to email or call people several levels below or above you. Communication follows the hierarchical chain.
With clients or partners you will be seated and spoken to in no specific order. With clients or partners, you may be seated and spoken to in order of position.

(Meyer’s chapter on “How Much Respect Do You Want?” discusses the different perspectives on power and leadership and includes some historical background and advice.)

Look at the comparison of these countries in Low and High Power Distance. The higher the bar, the more authoritarian the culture. The blue represents China; the purple represents Hungary; and the green shows the US.[2]

Here are some helpful tips in relationships from high and low power distance cultures:

With Low Power Distance people:

  • De-emphasize formalities;
  • Question or challenge authority.

With High Power Distance people:

  • Follow the chain of command carefully;
  • Do not question authority—particularly in public;

Please remember, there is right or proper way here. One end or the other is not more or less correct. For Christians, Jesus is LORD and our authority, but he is also our Friend who works with and beside us all the time. It works both ways and we must be prepared to adjust and adapt according to our situation. If you have ideas or questions about egalitarian/low power distance or hierarchical/high power distance cultures, or have an example of a culture clash you wonder about, please write me at lesliepjohnson@lesliepjohnson.com and I will try to address that issue at some point in this blog.


[1] Meyer, E. (2015). The Culture Map: Decoding how people think, lead, and get things done across cultures (p. 131).New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

[2] Taken from https://www.hofstede-insights.com/product/compare-countries/ where you can put in up to three countries to compare cultural dimensions.

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