I’ve posted in depth on power distance and how it varies from one culture to another. To recap, power distance, or “PDI,” is the degree of inequality in society and the emotional distance that separates subordinates from superiors.
Many Western cultures thrive on very low power distance principles. Since most of today’s modern management theory has come directly from the West, this means these theories work great in Western cultures but tend to have problems in the East.
Most modern management expects employees to think independently, be honest and critical, question the status quo, and openly voice disagreement. Many recent management tools, such as Scrum and Agile methods, empower the employee so much that the line between “boss” and “employee” becomes blurred and — sometimes — almost eradicated.
Across much of the Middle East and Asia, this approach fails miserably. Traditional organizational structures don’t tolerate this approach. Direct criticism and questioning tends to be viewed as dissent. Respect for seniority, wisdom, and age play into it. Decision making happens at higher levels in the company, and decisions flow downward. Employees are expected to act in unison, provide information when requested, and respond like a well-oiled machine to the strategic decisions of their senior management.
The Global Project Compass™ (introduced previously) covers 27 project management disciplines. It identifies the following management disciplines as being most directly affected by power distance:
- Goal Setting
- Organizational Structure & Policy Setting
- Standard Compliance
- Business Case Validation
- Positive Assurance of Compliance
As pointed out in the introduction, different cultures have different expectations about where their goals come from. Employees that are used to low power distance will feel slighted if they are not closely involved in setting goals, or if their voice is not heard. On the other end of the spectrum, those accustomed to being told what to do may conclude that their boss doesn’t really know what’s going on if too many questions are asked or if the boss seems to rely on subordinate opinions.
Organizational Structure & Policy Setting
Closely related to goal setting is policy setting, and that includes the hierarchy (or lack of hierarchy) in an organization itself. Employees from high power distance cultures tend to feel far more comfortable in an environment that provides clearly defined roles. That translates into greater hierarchy, and more clearly responsibilities. As Honeywell learned, without adequate training and management programs, their Chinese R&D department really had no idea how to go about inventing truly new products.
Compliance is an interesting topic to explore, because it shows off a reversal of competence along the power distance spectrum. Employees accustomed to high power distance and being given clear guidelines tend to flourish when it comes to compliance. Such standards provide a clear set of instructions, set boundaries, and make the job an easy one to follow (at least, when the standards are well documented).
Unfortunately, with poorly defined or conflicting standards, problems occur. Poorly written rote instructions rapidly lead to chaos when those instructions are in conflict — and high power distance cultures also tend to demonstrate little critical thinking or problem solving here.
On the other hand, with a team that is used to low power distance, standards can become a “thorn in the side.” These teams — trained to think critically and voice their opinions — often struggle to see the rationale or validity of standards. They might push back against them, although when the standards themselves are questionable this can be a boon: Those same teams will quickly point out flaws (and perhaps push to have the standards disqualified).
Business Case Validation
Critical thinking, scenario planning, and a talent for seeing the future are traits needed when validating a business case. These skills tend to flourish at the executive level in high power distance cultures, while the critical thinking of low power distance teams can be incredibly valuable to examine every aspect of a business model.
Positive Assurance of Compliance
Making sure that you are complying with standards is often the responsibility of the quality assurance department or a separate standards body. Power distance and organizational structure play a huge role. Assurance of compliance carries with it a need for authority. Failure in compliance means, potentially, putting a stop to project activities, and challenging the organization and the team (at least, in so far as ensuring products conform to agreed standards). Organizational structure is important, but often the standards compliance body is not set up with adequate authority — in some cases, being subordinate to conflicting objectives (such as project management). Ensuring that the right structure exists; that there is a separation of concerns; and there is authority to act, is critical, and very dependent on the cultural biases at play.
Cover graphic attribution: The artist and visual designer Yang Liu was born in China and lives in Germany since she was 14. By growing up in two very different places with very different traditions she was able to experience the differences between the two cultures first-hand.