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

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.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Power Distance and Risk  Next Issue

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[Hofstede 2011]
Geert Hofstede. "Dimensionalizing cultures: The Hofstede model in context," Online readings in psychology and culture 2.1 (2011), 8. Available here. See p. 9. Back

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