Power Distance and Innovation

How comfortable do you feel talking back to your boss when you think he or she has managed something the wrong way? Think about it, do you enter his office and say “Bob, I think you really blew that one” or perhaps you slightly knock on the door and wait for the right moment in the conversation just to almost unperceivable say “Perhaps, in my own opinion, we could have done it differently.” Direct confrontation or sugar-coated words?

Believe it or not, the way we cope with authority is not only determined by our own personality or the personal relationship we have with others, it is also a cultural aspect. According to the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede and his work on how cultures differ from one another (Hoftede’s Dimensions, 1960s and 1970s) every culture has what is called a “power distance index”, which shows its attitudes towards hierarchy. For example, in the competitive work environment in the US, with a culture who has the individual rights, equality and freedom of speech well rooted into the culture, you will find people commonly speaking out loud their beliefs without any kind of mitigation in their words, promoting equal hierarchy. In fact, confronting hierarchy and authority is even expected. If you want to achieve professional goals, you will fight for the power, no one should step on you or take any kind of advantage even if you are in the lowest rank of the organization. You win your place. Bosses sometimes even play-it-low in order to be perceived as an equal among the group and get better results. This means having a low Power Distance Index.

Now think of Latin American culture. From Spanish and Portuguese conquests to modern day dictatorships, Latin Americans have had to “pay respect” to higher power ranks… or die. Of course we have had our own burst of rebellion, with independence wars and revolutions, but still we are used to having (even as a result from those wars) an elite class in control of an uneven , poorly distributed society. This is manifested even in our governments that have poor accountability. We don’t even have in Spanish a word for accountability! (you usually say something like: “rendir cuentas”, which are two words). We are used to ranks, and worst of all, we are used to adulate, ask for personal favors (of course in exchange of another), and/or pull-strings with ranks in order to achieve our goals. Those who have power often misuse it and do not tolerate those who confront their points of view… and sadly we are ok with that. Having a high power distance index means we respect hierarchy a little too much compared to other cultures.

In Malcom Gladwell’s book “Outliers” (1), the author talks about the Power Distance Index very interestingly, showing how cultural heritage affects personal success. For example, he talks about how an Aviacsa flight crashed due to the way the Colombian pilot and copilot communicated “poorly” (without a perceivable sense of urge) to the pushy American control tower due to power distance aspects and mitigation of speech. Gladwell also quotes the top and low 5 countries with PDI (1 having high power distance index):

1. Brazil
2. South Korea
3. Morocco
4. Mexico
5. Philippines

15. United States
16. Ireland
17. South Africa
18. Australia
19. New Zeland

But what effect does power distance have on innovation? As always, it can have pros and cons depending on the situation, although in general having a low-power distance index is better for innovation (which doesn’t mean each country does not innovate accordingly to their own PDI). Think of the following:

Horizontal organizations as well as small multidisciplinary special innovation teams have proved to be more effective for innovation. Both structures often involve people in the same rank where everybody needs to feel and act equal, with high empowerment, responsibility and accountability, and speaking up ideas. Innovation is driven in a creative environment. Low PDI is positive in the way of treating others in the first stages for innovation where creativity must rule and people should be confortable participating with their opinions and motivated to keep on. Being too harsh, judgmental or upfront in early stages could have a negative effect on others, you don’t need authority, you need to be equal in hierarchy so that ideas can also be equal in hierarchy and come from anyone.

In later stages of innovation, you do need more authority and decision taking, where hierarchy distinction does play an important role. Remember innovation can cause everyone to feel a protagonist, and everyone would like their opinion being included on the final result. Most innovation projects, because of their novelty nature, do not have enough information to take concrete decisions therefore personal opinions and hunches can differ greatly. One of the main problems in portfolio management is not killing projects in time or not killing them at all. Imagine working for the R&D department, investigating a new formula that hasn’t given results for years but that you feel close to having an achievement and suddenly being cancelled for underperformance, how would you react? Would you still be motivated the next day? Probably a culture with high PDI would go on with their job easier, respecting the order from above. Innovation stages should have milestones and clear objectives in each gate, understood by everyone, in order to reduce what can be considered authocratic or imposed decisions.

What can we do then to manage cultures with different power distance index in innovation projects? First of all, be aware of them. Multicultural groups are great for innovation due to this type of cultural differences! If you are the project leader, perhaps the Korean who hasn’t spoken a lot in the brainstorming session has the best ideas in his mind but hasn’t been able to communicate them properly. Encourage him! Make him feel comfortable in order to close the power distance gap. And if he speaks… listen closely. Same for Latin Americans, if they say something like “In my personal opinion…” or “Maybe there is a chance of…” take it as a direct opinion and not a doubtful comment. The latin using euphemisms might have such a strong opinion as the American who is almost yelling it at you.

In the other hand, as a member of a culture with high power distance index, try to speak up when necessary and trust yourself. Be sure your boss, peers or project leader knows clearly what you are thinking, even (and especially) if you think they are mistaken. Identify euphemisms and do not use them if they are going to make you seem shy, unsecure or doubtful. Of course, be respectful, and learn to identify the “tone” of the entire group and the organization’s own work culture and language. Do not let anyone step on you and truly believe in individual merits and opinions even if the company you work for doesn’t seem to value them. Someone, or somewhere else, will.

(1) Gladwell, Malcom (2008) "Outliers, The Story of Success". Little, Brown and Company. US.

Picture taken from http://blog.madeirawindbirds.com/organizational-chart-from-a-birders-point-of

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