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Hofstede’s 1st Dimension – Power Distance.

Professor Geert Hofstede

Geert Hofstede is widely regarded as one of the foremost thinkers when it comes to the study of national cultures. Following ground-breaking research in the late 1960’s he published Cultural Consequences in which he introduced us to the 4 Cultural Dimensions (later to be increased to 6). The first of these being Power Distance. Power Distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. The study of Power Distance and the comparison of the Power Distance between two or more countries can help us to understand, who is in charge and who will make the decisions. Countries with a Low Power Distance, for example The United Kingdom or Norway will differ greatly from those with a High Power Distance, like, Malaysia or China. But it is not a question of extremes, it is important that culture only exists by comparison. Without comparison it just becomes stereotyping, which at best is unhelpful and at worst racist. In a country with a Low Power Distance you would expect to find a culture that errs towards:
  • Leaders should share power
  • Change by evolution.
  • Skills, wealth, power and status need not go together.
  • Scandals end political careers of those involved.
  • Parent treat children as equals
  • Children pay no role in old age security of parents.
  • The ideal boss is a resourceful democrat.
  • Managers rely on their own experience and subordinates.
  • Decentralisation is popular.
Whereas for countries with a High Power Distance the deviation would be towards the opposite, thus;
  • Leaders should hold power
  • Change by revolution.
  • Skills, wealth, power and status should go together.
  • Scandals involving power holders are usually covered up.
  • Parents teach children obedience
  • Children are a source of old age security to parents.
  • The ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat – ‘ a good father’.
  • Managers rely on superiors and on formal rules.
  • Centralisation is popular.
If you look at the below map you can see how some countries rate on the Power Distance scale. The actual figures on their own are irrelevant since they tempt the reader to classify or pigeonhole, a country. However, where the figures do come into their own is when looking at the difference between two states or cultures. This is where this map comes in handy.   Where the colours are the same, whilst the values may be different the actual difference is less important. So, you can reasonably make the assumption that in respect to this dimension these countries have similar values. However, a difference in colour means a difference in focus and values between the two. Therefore, when you come to do business across this border you can expect some differences that will require solutions to be built into your strategies. The other interesting fact about cultures is that you don’t have to travel thousands of kilometres to notice a big difference. As the map of Europe show, there are big differences right on our doorstep.   Martin Baker 2014 martinbaker.fr