Sunday, November 19, 2006

Power Distance Enlightens Managing

As the population becomes more diverse, the challenge for everyone in working together productively skyrockets. There are so many factors interacting, it’s hard for leaders and managers to see clearly let alone get results that stick. Blindness to the subtleties is not an option when engagement is the new desired norm and disengagement of too many a persistent reality.

Power distance is one way to better understand the underlying subtleties of today’s working and learning environments. It refers to the extent to which the less powerful members of an organization or institution expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. For example, does an employee (or student) value a dependent or interdependent relationship with a manager or teacher? What does the manager/teacher value? It’s all relative though as the style of the person in the authority position (learned from cultural background and working experiences) affects what the employee or learner perceives and values.

Let’s look at this more closely. According to researchers from the Netherlands, Gerte Hofstede and Gerte Jan Hofstede (Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind), there are three dimensions of power and authority that reflect employees’ views:
>the frequency with which they are afraid to disagree with their managers (very frequently to very seldom)
>their perception of a manager’s actual decision making style (for example, autocratic, majority vote, consultative)
>their preferences for a manager’s decision making style

Apparently, there is a close relationship between the reality employees perceive and the reality desired. If employees are not afraid to speak up and their bosses are generally not autocratic or paternalistic, the employees prefer a consultative approach. If employees seem less inclined to disagree with their managers and the latter are autocratic or paternalistic, employees express a preference for bosses who decide autocratically or paternalistically.

So which comes first, the cart or the horse? The working environment as experienced through the style of the leaders (those who manage as different from individual contributors and front line personnel) matters.

This begs the question: how does a leader-manager know where he or she sits on the power-authority scale? Without such knowledge, and given that employees tend to mirror what they are experiencing, the manager is left in a blind leading the blind situation.

The findings from countries provide a useful starting point. The different national cultures in which people grow up affect the mind set around power distance. Based on Gerte and Gerte’s research on IBM employees in 74 countries, most Asian, Eastern European and Latin American countries have high power distance values (higher acceptance of inequality between managers and direct reports). There are lower values for German-speaking countries (Austria, Switzerland and Germany), Israel, Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland), the United States, Great Britain and its former colonies (Canada, New Zealand, Ireland and Australia) and the Netherlands (but not for Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium). These findings can be used as a general rule of thumb to know where you are as a manager in relation to the people who report to you.

Rather than accept them at face value, better to use the idea of power distance as a framework for discussion. As a manager, ask how your direct reports view power distance (chance to disagree with you, your style, what they prefer) and negotiate a relationship that fits the issues to be resolved.

Keep in mind that there are sub-cultures within every grouping. For example, generation influences the desire for equality too. Demographers are quick to remind us how the Echo generation---those born between 1975 and 1990--- as a whole have a very casual attitude toward supervisors. That implies a narrow power distance perspective which could potentially conflict with some members of other generations who have a more formal attitude toward their bosses. Thus, this needs to be tested and taken into consideration by a manager in calibrating expectations.

Making our mental software----how we think, feel and behave---more conscious is a critical skill of effective leader-managers. None of us can ever figure out accurately where a person comes from on power distance or on values. It is a constant challenge to know ourselves, the virtues with the vices. We can, however, engage in fruitful discussions to table the different views and find areas of commonality.

Enlightenment about self and others increases the odds that the right decisions facing any group or team will emerge despite the formidable complexities of the problems to be solved. Leaders who strive to understand how power distance is helping or hindering creative discussions in their workplaces will see a little more clearly.

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