4 Tutorials that teach High & Low Power Distance
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High & Low Power Distance

High & Low Power Distance

Author: Marlene Johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand the cultural worldview spectrum re: power distance and differences between individuals

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Video Transcription

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Cultures vary in how they view power and authority and perceive that it should be distributed within society. I'm Marlene. And today in this tutorial, I'd like to talk with you about those cultural differences, specifically, I'd like to talk with you about something called power distance.

Power distance. Now that term refers to a gap between people in a society. How big is the gap in terms of how power and rights are distributed in any particular given culture.

So behind me here I've got a scale. And at the top you see high-power distance, and at the bottom low-power distance. So high-power distance refers to a cultural worldview where it's thought some people are due more respect, power, rights based on status or some other characteristic. Now, typically in a high-power society, high-power distance culture authority is concentrated in the hands of a few rather than equally distributed through society. And people in a culture like this would be less likely to question authority in the workplace or elsewhere.

Now, in contrast, cultures that are low-power distance hold a worldview where all people are entitled to equal rights, power, authority, respect, regardless of status or any other characteristic. So when we look at the differences here between high power and low power in terms of culture, I think it's safe to say that the US here falls closer to the low-power distance. So we're about here on this scale.

Now, cultures, countries can fall anywhere here, some are more in the middle, some are more extreme high power, some are very low power. So there's a scale here in terms of where cultures would fall. Now, what's interesting is that in a high-power distance, cultures that fall closer to high-power distance, people in those cultures are given rights, respect, authority based on their perceived status. But this is contextually dependent in many cases, or can be.

For example, someone could gain status through gaining wealth or education, so wealth and education would raise their status. However, they might be a member of opposed minority in any given culture, which would give them a lower status. So now we've got these two status markers at interplay.

So how that plays out, of course, will determine the eventual rights, power, authority, how it's distributed to this individual. You can even see that it play in this country, where we're low power status. There still is an interplay that can take place in some context and some settings here in the US.

So what happens when someone from low-power distance is interacting with someone from high-power distance? How can there be miscommunications or even conflicts? Well, here's an example.

Let's say that someone from low-power culture, we'll say the US, is managing a team, say, who come from a culture that's more high-power distance. And the manager from the US believes in being a team player and getting input from people on his team when they move ahead on a project or make decisions. It's because in low-power cultures the communications typically are more horizontal.

Well, now this manager's dealing with people from a high-power culture, high-power distance, where it's more vertical, tends to be more hierarchical. So when you manage in a culture like that, typically, you will make a decision and you don't try to involve your subordinates in that decision making. So the manager decides to involve the subordinates who would be too much of a team player, he or she could lose respect in terms of their ability to be an authority figure. So that's an example of something that could play out when you have people from these two different cultures, high-power distance and low-power distance, interacting.

So it's important to say here that when we're talking about this, we're talking about a broad general perspective and how it applies to cultures. But not everybody in a culture, of course, is going to behave or perceive things exactly the same way. So we need to be careful as well of stereotyping.

Now conflicts, as you can see, or misunderstandings are ripe here. They could occur. And what happens in the conflict resolution process, If you're working with people in that process, and there might be a party that's more high power and another part that's more low-power distance?

Well, it's important to address the party that comes from a more high-power distance culture perhaps a little more formally. Don't ignore status. If they introduce themselves using a last name, perhaps, you want to be more formal and use your last name, and not immediately move onto a first-name basis, the way we might typically do here in the United States. So respect the status. Perhaps be a bit more formal, if that is what is called for.

In terms of the person or the party from the low-power distance culture, you need to make sure that you reassure that they're seen as equals. Everyone here is going to be seen equally or treated equally. And certainly in the conflict resolution process, people are given equal opportunity to speak and to be heard.

So once again, these are two various ways of looking at power and authority. Different cultural views. Countries, cultures fall on this scale. It can lead to miscommunication and conflict.

And so it's important to be aware of what your cultural viewpoint is and how you view power and authority. And if you're particular with your walking into a situation with someone from another culture where they view it differently. I've enjoyed this tutorial. And I look forward to next time.

  • High Power Distance

    A cultural worldview which holds that some individuals are due greater respect, consideration, power, and/or rights due to a unique status or characteristic.

  • Low Power Distance

    A cultural worldview which holds that all individuals, regardless of status or characteristics are entitled to equal respect, consideration power and/or rights.