Power Distance – How Does It Affect You at Work?

Recently, a multinational organization had an opportunity to close a huge deal with a chip manufacturing company from China. The negotiations were led by Fabian, a German national, who arranged a site visit for the management team from China with the hopes of acquainting them with the local processes. Due to certain unfortunate circumstances, Fabian could not be present for the visit and instead sent his subordinate Erik to greet and show the Chinese team around. Many discussions later, the deal fell through and the contract was awarded to a competitor instead. It was later discovered that the management team from China felt that the absence of Fabian and the subsequent replacement by a lower ranked staff showed a lack of respect and importance for them.

The example above shows a breakdown in communication due to the different cultural understanding of power distance. Geert Hofstede first introduced the term to describe how people view and accept the way power is distributed in society. People from high power distance cultures (such as China and most Asian countries) readily accept that people are not equal in power or authority. Subordinates are often very respectful to their leaders and expect their bosses to make decisions for them. On the other hand, those from low power distance cultures (such as the US, UK, Denmark and Australia) tend to view everyone as an equal and prefer to make their own decisions.

As a hierarchical society, Malaysians are more comfortable with a high power distance approach when doing business. From the moment we are born, we are programmed to automatically give respect to those who are older or of a higher position, which then translates into the workplace environment. However, if you are working with colleagues or superiors from low power distance cultures, how can you display Cultural Intelligence and adapt to their communication and management styles? Here are some common scenarios you may find yourself in and ways you can adjust to become a global communicator:

  1. Addressing someone on a first name basis. One of the first bosses I worked with was an American gentleman in his 70s who requested me to address him by his first name, Simon. Having used the titles Mr, Mrs, Uncle, and Aunty all my life, this was extremely uncomfortable for me to do. While most local companies will still use Mr, Mrs, or Miss before one’s name, the reality is your colleagues from international corporations will deem it as unnecessary and instead feel more respected and viewed as an equal when addressed by their first names.
  2. Expressing an opinion. A common complaint is that Malaysians are stubbornly quiet during Question-And-Answer sessions. Do you find yourself hesitating to answer a question or share a great idea, especially when your boss is present? Remember that leaders from low power distance cultures highly value participation, insight and constructive feedback from their staff. Therefore, advance preparation is key to helping you gather and express your thoughts in a logical and cohesive manner while still maintaining a respectful attitude.
  3. Solving a problem, big or small. Ever encountered a problem and the first inclination was to run to your boss to report it and await further instructions? A Danish manager once said, “All problems are pushed up, up, up and I do my best to nudge them way back down.” Low power distance individuals value the ability to problem-solve and develop critical thinking. When faced with an issue, try spending several minutes evaluating possible solutions that you can then suggest to your superior when discussing the problem.
  4. Communicating across different levels of authority. Would you bypass your immediate superior and approach the next manager with an issue? In most cases, Malaysians would answer no. However, there are times when this is expected of you such as during skip level meetings organized by management. Depending on the appropriateness of the situation, one-on-one time with the big boss can be an effective way to channel any challenges or creative ideas directly to management without the presence of your immediate superiors.
  5. Socializing during informal occasions. During lunch events, I used to observe that my fellow Malaysian colleagues would linger until the boss chooses a seat, then select a seat as far away from it as possible. The task of conversing with the boss was often left to the same few brave individuals or allocated to those who were late to the table. At informal gatherings like this, a low power distance superior will want to feel like ‘one of the guys’ so it is a great opportunity to get to know your superior on a more personal level.

It goes without saying that not everyone from a particular geography will have the same view of power distance. A person’s background, experiences and international exposure will affect his or her perception and approach to the power distance scale. Potential global leaders will need to cultivate the flexibility to manage up and down the cultural scales, and our various cross-cultural training programs can equip such ones with the Cultural Intelligence to succeed in this regard.

By: Boleh Blogger