Low Vs. High Power Distance

The term “power distance” refers to one of the four dimensions of cultural values identified by the researcher Geert Hofstede. They are used to describe different cultures around the world. Between 1967 and 1973, Hofstede conducted a study of 88,000 employees of IBM in 72 countries, concluding that different cultures in these countries differ along several dimensions:

  1. Individualism-collectivism
  2. Uncertainty avoidance
  3. Masculinity-femininity 
  4. Power distance

Power distance describes the extent to which members of the society accept the uneven distribution of power and their willingness to subordinate to authorities.

Power Distance Index

To formalize his findings, Hofstede developed a power distance index (PDI) where countries with the higher index have high power distance and countries with a lower index have a lower power distance. For instance, according to this scale Malaysia has power PDI 104 (one of the highest ones) while Austria, Israel and Denmark have PDI’s 11, 13 and 18 respectively (the lowest on the scale). The United States has PDI 40 and the United Kingdom 35.

High Power Distance

Countries that have high power distance include many Latin American, African and Asian countries. In these countries, hierarchy is an essential part of the society, and unequal distribution of power is seen as beneficial. Those higher on the hierarchy are expected to take care of those lower on the hierarchy, and it is often appropriate for those in power to make decisions without consulting their subordinates. Those lower on the hierarchy generally are expected to obey their superiors. For instance, students may not be allowed to argue with their professors, and it may not be acceptable for employers to disagree with their boss.

Lower Power Distance

In countries with low power distance, such as Israel, Denmark, Ireland and Austria, members of the society value equality and democracy, and it is more acceptable for those who are junior in age or rank to question authority. For instance, students in schools and universities are encouraged to express opinions freely and disagree with their professors, while decisions in organizations are often reached at by taking into account opinions of all employers.

Cultural And Intercultural Implications

Power distance affects the relationship between the government and its citizens, employer and employees, teachers and students and even parents and children.

The concept of power distance is often at the root of intercultural miscommunications when people from countries with different PDIs interact. For instance, a teacher from Malaysia teaching at a university in Ireland might consider his students rude and disrespectful because Ireland has a much lower power distance, and it is more acceptable to disagree with authority. On the other hand, an Israeli businessmen leading a company in Mexico might consider his employees as lacking initiative because they were taught to respect authority above all.