The final in our series on cross-cultural communication issues looks at the concept of 'power distance'. Power distance refers to the way in which power is distributed and the extent to which the less powerful accept that power is distributed unequally. Put simply, people in some cultures accept a higher degree of unequally distributed power than do people in other cultures. When in a high power distance culture the relationship between bosses and subordinates is one of dependence. When in a low power distance society the relationship between bosses and subordiantes is one of interdependence.
Australia, for example, is a low power distance country while Asian countries such as Hong Kong are at the high power distance side of the spectrum. People in high distance countries tend to believe that power and authority are facts of life. Both consciously and unconsciously, these cultures teach their members that people are not equal in this world and that everybody has a rightful place, which is clearly marked by countless vertical arrangements. Social hierarchy is prevalent and institutionalises that inequality. Leaders are therefore expected to resolve disputes as well as make all the difficult decisions. Subordinates will simply comply with their leader rather than challenge him or her or try to arrive at their own solutions in dealing with conflict. They seldom challenge their leaders power.
On the other hand, in lower power distance countries there is a preference for consultation and subordinates will quite readily approach and contradict their bosses. The parties will openly work towards resolving any dispute by stating their own points of view. If they cannot come to a satisfactory conclusion, they may choose to involve a mediator. Leaders actually encourage independent thought and contributions to problem solving and expect (within reason) to be challenged.
The bottom line is that if you are coming from a low power distance culture and having to deal with someone in a high power distance culture nothing is going to happen without the boss's say so... so make sure you are talking to the right person or recognise that the channels that your proposal is going to go through may take a lot longer than you originally anticipated.