Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Culture — Would You Laugh At Your Boss?

We must be in a high PDI zone.

We must be in a high PDI zone.

Would you make fun of your boss… to her face?  If you’re from Denmark, you might. If you’re from Slovakia, probably not.

That’s one of the conclusions you might draw from the Power Distance Index (PDI), a measure of one of the “dimensions” of culture. Since the early 20th century, social scientists have worked to classify human cultures and measure how they differ from each other. The dimensions deal with fundamental concepts, like how we conceive of ourselves as individuals, the relationship between the individual and the group, how men and women relate to each other, and how we handle conflict. From these foundations, different observers have developed different numbers of cultural dimensions, ranging from a low of four to a high of nine.

Lately, I’ve been reading the work of Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede, a father-son team of cultural researchers from the Netherlands. In their book, Culture and Organization: Software of the Mind, they suggest that there are five cultural dimensions: 1) power distance; 2) individualism versus collectivism; 3) femininity versus masculinity; 4) uncertainty avoidance; 5) long-term versus short-term orientation. I’d like to look at all five of these — and their inter-relationship — over the coming weeks. Today, let’s look at power distance. (By the way, one of the reasons I like the Hofstedes is that they relate their findings to the workplace. The last several chapters of their book offer practical advice on managing in a multicultural world).

The Hofstedes define power distance as “the extent to which the less powerful … [citizens] … of a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.” The Hofstedes developed an index to measure power distance within a country and applied it to 74 different countries. The five countries with the highest PDI scores are Malaysia (PDI = 104), Slovakia (104), Guatemala (95), Panama (95), and Philippines (94). The five with lowest scores are German-speaking Switzerland (26), New Zealand (22), Denmark (18), Israel (13), and Austria (11). (The United States has a PDI of 40)

Power distance affects cultures in myriad ways. Countries with low PDIs generally believe that “inequalities among people should be minimized.” On the other hand, those with high PDIs generally believe that “Inequalities among people are expected and desired”. In low PDI countries, “parents treat children as equals”; in high PDI countries, “parents teach children obedience”.

In the workplace, differences between low- and high-PDI countries can be pronounced. In low-PDI countries, the workplace is generally decentralized with few supervisors. The ideal boss is a resourceful democrat and status symbols are generally frowned upon. In high-PDI countries, the situation is essentially reversed: the workplace is centralized with a large number of supervisors. The ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat and status symbols are normal and popular.

Here are two findings that struck me as very odd. In Europe and the Americas, countries with Romance languages had — on average — higher PDI scores than those with Germanic languages. In the popular imagination, Germanic countries are often perceived to be very hierarchical. The Hofstedes’ research suggests that the opposite is true. Austria (PDI= 11) has the lowest PDI of any of the 74 countries. German-speaking Switzerland has a PDI of 26 which compares to 70 for French-speaking Switzerland. Germany itself has a score of 35.

The other oddity is that PDI scores tend to drop the farther north (or the farther south) you move from the equator. Tropical lands tend to have higher power distances than temperate lands. Here are scores for some of the more northern (and southern) countries: Denmark (18), New Zealand (22), Ireland (28), Sweden (31), Norway (31), Finland (33), Australia (36), Canada (39). The Hofstedes suggest some possible reasons for this distribution but their ideas seem a bit too pat to me. While I’m scartching my head as to the cause, it may be that we’re simply measuring language differences again. None of the northern countries I’ve just listed speaks a Romance language.

So, what does it all mean? I’m still working on that. I do find it very interesting that the Nordic countries are clustered at the very low end of the PDI table while they’re at the very high end of the World Happiness Report and the Global Innovation Index. There’s something interesting in the state of Denmark. Think about that for a while. In the meantime, don’t laugh at your boss.

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