Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 43;   October 23, 2019: Power Distance and Teams

Power Distance and Teams


One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects.
An excavator loads spoil into rail cars in the Culebra Cut, Panama, 1904

An excavator loads spoil into rail cars in the Culebra Cut, Panama, 1904.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Some projects get into real trouble — real trouble, not just a speedbump. When that happens, we attribute the trouble to the usual suspects — misconceived plans, poor leadership, insufficient resources, and so on. But one suspect that's often ignored is team culture. Culture can limit how a team responds to trouble at any stage of the unfolding catastrophe. And sadly, even when we make risk plans, we rarely plan for the risks associated with the idiosyncrasies of team culture.

In a series of research papers, books, articles, and Web sites, over a period of five or six decades and still counting, Geert Hofstede developed, tuned, and applied a model of cultures that has predictive value for nations, for businesses large and small, and, as I'm suggesting here, for project teams as they respond to trouble. Hofstede's model, based on his cultural dimensions theory, describes cultures in terms of six dimensions: Power Distance, Individualism/Collectivism, Uncertainty Avoidance, Masculinity/Femininity, Long/Short Term Orientation, and Indulgence/Restraint. Of these, three are most relevant for project teams executing high-risk projects: Power Distance, Individualism/Collectivism, and Uncertainty Avoidance.

These cultural A cultural attribute known as
power distance can affect a
team's ability to execute high-
risk projects successfully
attributes suggest the possibility of dramatic differences in a society's — or a company's or a team's — ability to successfully undertake challenging, high-risk projects. I'll address Uncertainty Avoidance and Individualism/Collectivism in future posts. For now, let's examine Hofstede's concept of a culture's Power Distance, and next time discuss how it might affect a team's ability to deal with high-risk projects successfully.

Hofstede defines power distance as "the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions…accept and expect that power is distributed unequally." [Hofstede 2011] To measure the Power Distance of a culture, Hofstede developed an index or scale, as defined by the perceptions of the society's members with least power. But for purposes of this exploration, it's sufficient to compare Large Power Distance (Large-PD) teams to Small Power Distance (Small-PD) teams in terms of the way they deal with unequally distributed power.

Below is a selection of attributes of Large-PD and Small-PD teams. It follows a similar list of Hofstede's that applies to societies. I've rephrased the items somewhat to apply to teams and the organizations that charter them.

Small Power Distance
Large Power Distance
The legitimacy of the use of power is subject to moral standards — good or evil, right or wrong, ethical or unethical
Power inequality is a fact of life and the legitimacy of its use isn't a consideration
Power holders treat subordinates almost as equals; power holders and subordinates regard themselves as collaborators
Subordinates are expected to obey — and they expect themselves to obey — the commands and directions of power holders
Hierarchy is present only when necessary, and then, minimally
Hierarchy is an unquestioned fact of life
Training is learner-centered, and professional development is a primary goal
Training is employer-centered and timed and designed to meet the needs of the employer
Subordinates expect to be consulted and expect to have a say in the work they do and the direction of the team
Subordinates expect to be told what to do
Management's approach is collaborative; managers view themselves as servant leaders
Management is autocratic, and based on co-optation of the efforts and creativity of subordinates
Management changes are driven by performance, merit, and expertise required by the project
Management is changed by top-down reorganizations, re-assignments, and by mergers or hostile takeovers
Corruption is rare; scandals lead to disciplinary action, including termination
Corruption is common; scandals are covered up
Compensation distribution is relatively even, with variations driven by market forces
Compensation distribution is very uneven and is biased in favor of power holders over their subordinates
There is relatively little concern for status or status symbols; power level confers very little privilege in terms of amenities; material resource allocations are determined by the nature of the work
There is relatively great concern for status and status symbols; office size and numbers of windows matter; there is segregation by power level for dining, office location, parking, and accommodations while traveling

An intriguing question presents itself: To what extent do these cultural differences with respect to Power Distance affect the success of high-risk projects? An example might provide helpful motivation.

Between 1881 and 1894, Ferdinand de Lesseps, with French backing, undertook one of the more significant attempts to construct a canal in Panama. Having had such great success with his sea-level canal at Suez, de Lesseps was the obvious choice for this project. His concept for Panama was similar to that of Suez — a sea-level canal through the Isthmus of Panama. Though his concept was similar, the climate and terrain were not. Suez is relatively flat and a desert; the Isthmus of Panama is mountainous and rain-drenched.

De Lesseps' effort in Panama ended in failure, bankruptcy, and scandal.

In 1904, after resolving the political issues involving Panama and its sovereignty — by what some say were questionable means — the United States purchased from France for $40 million the construction equipment and progress to date. Under John Findley Wallace, the former chief engineer of the Illinois Central Railroad, work resumed along largely the lines laid out by de Lesseps — a sea-level canal through the mountainous isthmus. When Wallace resigned suddenly in 1905, John Frank Stevens, who had built the Great Northern Railway, running from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Seattle, Washington, replaced him. Stevens' experience with that effort seemed relevant to the Panama problem, as the route of the Great Northern Railway traversed the Rocky Mountains.

Stevens quickly made changes to both the canal construction process and the infrastructure, which dramatically improved operational effectiveness. Meanwhile, a U.S. design review of the project in 1905 approved the sea-level canal concept of de Lesseps, thereby committing the United States to the design as it then stood.

But by that point, Stevens had experienced the rains that drench the Isthmus every year. He regarded a sea level cut as unworkable because of the enormous volume of the water from those rains. He conceived a new approach that would manage the runoff most effectively, and which would dramatically reduce the amount of rock and earth to be moved. His approach used locks to raise and lower vessels in their traverse over the mountains, and in 1906, he presented his new design to President Roosevelt, who approved it.

Such radical re-thinking of high-risk projects is not uncommon. Because re-thinking often requires questioning the decisions of powerful people, it's reasonable to suppose that Small-PD organizational cultures are better able to re-think their projects when necessary; and the people working on those projects are more likely to take the risk of pointing out the need to re-think when the need arises. Indeed, Hofstede's research suggests that French culture is Large-PD, while the United States culture is Small-PD. Stevens might have been helped — and de Lesseps might have been hindered — by the power distances of their respective cultures.

Next time, we'll examine several mechanisms by which power distance can affect an organization's re-thinking processes.  Power Distance and Risk Next issue in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Power Distance and Risk  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Hofstede 2011]
Geert Hofstede. "Dimensionalizing cultures: The Hofstede model in context," Online readings in psychology and culture 2.1 (2011), p.8. Available here. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

Icelandic currentsRestarting Projects
When a project gets off track, we sometimes cancel it. But since canceling projects takes a lot of courage, we look for ways to save them if we can. Often, things do turn out OK, and at other times they don't. There's a third choice, between pressing on with a project and canceling it. We can restart.
The Cone NebulaShining Some Light on "Going Dark"
If you're a project manager, and a team member "goes dark" — disappears or refuses to report how things are going — project risks escalate dramatically. Getting current status becomes a top priority problem. What can you do?
A section of the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston in 2008The Politics of the Critical Path: I
The Critical Path of a project or activity is the sequence of dependent tasks that determine the earliest completion date of the effort. If you're responsible for one of these tasks, you live in a unique political environment.
Eugene F. Kranz, flight director, at his console on May 30, 1965, in the Control Room in the Mission Control Center at HoustonDesign Errors and Group Biases
Design errors can cause unwanted outcomes, but they can also lead to welcome surprises. The causes of many design errors are fundamental attributes of the way groups function. Here is Part II of our exploration.
A plastic owl, used as a deterrent of unwanted birds and rodentsAnticipating Absence: How
Knowledge workers are professionals who "think for a living." When they suddenly become unavailable because of the pandemic, we consider substituting someone else. But substitutes need much more than skills and experience to succeed.

See also Project Management and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A close-up view of a chipseal road surfaceComing July 3: Additive bias…or Not: II
Additive bias is a cognitive bias that many believe contributes to bloat of commercial products. When we change products to make them more capable, additive bias might not play a role, because economic considerations sometimes favor additive approaches. Available here and by RSS on July 3.
The standard conception of delegationAnd on July 10: On Delegating Accountability: I
As the saying goes, "You can't delegate your own accountability." Despite wide knowledge of this aphorism, people try it from time to time, especially when overcome by the temptation of a high-risk decision. What can you delegate, and how can you do it? Available here and by RSS on July 10.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrendPtoGuFOkTSMQOzxner@ChacEgGqaylUnkmwIkkwoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at X, or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.