The dimension that matters most in Cultural Differences is often claimedpower distance or pdi to be Power Distance Index or PDI

Even up to 80% of all cultural friction is attributed to this Power Distance index! There are 3 more dimensions of culture but let’s first focus on this one since it is so important.

 

A Definition of Power Distance Index

Let us start with a definition, so we are all on the same page:

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”  George Orwell

Or to put it in a more official way, Power Distance is the: “Level of acceptance of people, who have no power, of the unequal spread of power in their society.

The interesting aspect of phrasing the Power Distance definition is that it is written from the perspective of people who have no power.

The definition loses all or most of its “value” if you leave that part out. In other words, if one already has the power, it does not matter much if people, who have no power, accept this or not.

Much like having wealth or money: if you have wealth or lots of money, it does not matter much if other people don’t have as much.

 

Interpretation

There are countries whereby people Do accept that there is power inequality. These countries will score high on Power Distance. Countries, whereby people Do Not accept that there is power inequality, will score low on this power distance index (all on Professor Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions).

 

Nuance

We need to nuance the above interpretation: All cultures/countries in the world have some level of power un-equality. In the low(er) scoring countries, people accept the fact that there are people who have more power in order to avoid a state of chaos or anarchy. In other words, in the low(er) scoring countries people will accept that the police is able and/or allowed to ask them for their ID or pull them over for a traffic violation.

 

The Differences

Below are the difference between Low and High Power Distance. Two notes in the margin: This list is not complete, below are just a couple of illustrations; Second, there are no cultures that have all of the low characteristics and none of the high characteristics.

When scoring low, they will have more of the low characteristics and fewer of the high characteristics. Culture is not black and white, there are numerous gray shades!

 

Low Power Distance Culture Examples

Below are some examples of low power distance culture:

  • Independence; People are (relatively) independent of the Power Holder (parents, teacher, boss, etc).
  • Good reason for hierarchy; When there are, so called, hierarchical layers, there must be a good reason for this. Putting a management layer, or manager in place just like that, will not easily be accepted.
  • What goes for you goes for me; Or equality: if you are allowed to do this, then I’m allowed to do the same as well.
  • Open door policy; This could literally mean that the door of the manager is open, or that the management of a company is not automatically on the top floor of the building.

Of course is the above list not complete. Nor are there low power distance cultures that have only low power distance culture characteristics and none of high power distance culture.

 

High Power Distance Culture Examples

And here are some examples of high power distance culture:

  • Dependence; People are (relatively) dependant on the Power Holder. This could result in subordinates not taking own initiative, but rather wait for the boss to give instructions. There is also relatively little real empowerment.
  • Hierarchy is just there; In other words, it is existential. It’s there, and that’s good and normal.
  • Special treatment; Typically there are privileges for the people in power. Like the parking place in front of the office, etc.
  • Gate keepers; Gate keepers are those people who keep the power holder away from the people who have no power. Often the Power Holder derives a certain level of status from not being approachable.

The same as with low power distance culture: there are no high power distance culture that have only high power distance culture characeristics and none of low power distance culture.

 

Examples of low power distance culture are:

  • The Netherlands
  • The UK & USA
  • Germany (yes!)
  • Nordic countries

 

Examples of high power distance culture are:

  • Belgium
  • France
  • Malaysia
  • The Arab World

 

Do you have other examples of low power or high power distance culture? Share them in the comments below!


If you’re interested in learning more why not get one of these books?

Overcome cultural differences in business

Uncertainty Avoidance in International Business


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Chris Smit

I'm passionate about Cultural Difference. I have been helping organizations save time and money when they work Internationally for the last 19 years. I have had the fortunate opportunity to hold lectures, workshops, and consulting projects on this subject World Wide. It has made me understand my own culture much better, and appreciate the differences around the world.
I have a Master's Degree in Organisational Psychology and have lived in the USA, the Netherlands and, currently, in Belgium.
Thank you!

Chris Smit
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