The term Power Distance Index (PDI) was coined by Geert Hofstede to enable him to describe the way different cultures manage working and social relationships, relationships between manager and subordinate or between elder and younger members of families or communities, essentially identifying the level of formality in these relationships. It forms one of the five terms he used to describe cultural differences, with the other four being Individuality, Cultural Masculinity, Long Term Orientation and Uncertainty Avoidance. I have provided a link to Hofstede’s book “Cultures and organisations” where he sets out much of the detail of these concepts at the bottom of my post introducing cultural diversity in virtual teams.
Hofstede conducted surveys across a number of different national groups and the results of the analysis of the survey data forms the basis of his work. His research provides a general basis for predicting in a comparative way how different cultures will behave, and consequently how “typical” individuals from these different cultures will interact in situations. There is no right or wrong, good or bad level of power distance, they are simply points along a continuum of the cultural and societal values of the individual country or region. These values have developed over decades, centuries and millennia and while they are indicative of the general views of a group do not of course represent the cultural views of each individual from any given culture.
While they are of course generalisations, they do provide a good starting point and a common language that can be used to consider different cultural views and perspective, and from a virtual team perspective they can be used to help understand how people may or may not react in certain situations.
Power distance, in this context, is not expected to be distributed or shared evenly in any culture. The differences in expectation vary substantially from country to country. In low power distance countries, the sharing of power is relatively even, with managers and subordinates treating one another as almost equals, often sharing jokes, openly discussing issues and soliciting and being prepared to readily consider the points of view of all contributors, regardless of their position in the organisation. At the other end of the scale are high power distance cultures, here the leader makes all decisions with no, or virtually no, consultation, these decisions are accepted readily as the final decision by the subordinates and acted on without question.
Knowing where the individuals and groups in your virtual team lie along the Power Distance continuum can help you understand how personnel will collaborate and should help you lead your project, but, again, these are generalisations and should not be regarded as applying to everyone from any given country. Also, remember that just because a team member is based in one country does not mean that is their country of origin nor that they will conform to all of the country norms.
Examples of national power distances
Some examples of power distances are below, where the larger the number the greater the “distance”;
- Russia – 93
- China – 80
- India – 77
- USA – 40
- Australia – 36
- Great Britain – 35
- Norway – 31
These indices indicate the relative differences between the cultures, and though they are not indicative of actual levels of difference, it is pretty clear to see that they do illustrate that one should not assume that the way a project of Russian personnel will interact is the same as the way a project of Norwegians, and from that of course, the interaction between teams of British and Chinese personnel will be different to a project team comprised entirely of British or Chinese personnel.
Practical applications of Power Distance
A couple of the most practical applications of developing a working understanding of power distance are that it enables you to appreciate that not everyone sees the world the same way that you do and that each perception is as valid as every other, people are simply different and work and react to situations in their own unique way. Appreciating the concept of power distance ale provides personnel with a concept and term that can use when they re discussing some of the personality differences between their colleagues, saying that a particular colleague has a relatively high or low power distance enables them to describe some of their cultural perceptions using clear and commonly understood terms.
The lesson in all of this is that while you may not need to know the details of Hofstede’s research or memorise the relative PDI’s of countries, to be effective in a virtual team you need to understand that these differences exist. That to be able to get the best from your teams you need to be able to establish good working relationships between personnel with all different power distance perspectives.
Ulfire specialises in assisting organisations develop high performing virtual teams, please feel free to contact us for any assistance or guidance you may need in establishing or managing your team or project.
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