Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 44;   October 30, 2019: Power Distance and Risk

Power Distance and Risk

by

Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and to question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk.
John Frank Stevens, who conceived the design and method of construction of the Panama Canal

John Frank Stevens, who conceived the design and method of construction of the Panama Canal. His ideas displaced the previously adopted conceptions. To gain acceptance of his concepts, he had to persuade President Theodore Roosevelt that the then-current approach was impractical. His action in this regard illustrates all five of the mechanisms discussed here. Photograph originally from Makers of the Panama Canal, compiled and edited by F.E. Jackson, 1911. Order from Amazon.com. Courtesy Wikimedia.

High-risk projects rarely go as planned. Reasons vary. Often cited are unanticipated unknowns, previous plan disruptions, and misconceptions revealed during execution. Changes external to the effort are also important. These include changes in the legal or regulatory environment, changes in organizational objectives, changes in organizational commitments, changes in markets, and more. The result can be volatility of objectives and general chaos.

To execute high-risk projects more effectively we usually try to reduce the chances of identified risks materializing. We also try to reduce the impacts of risks that do materialize. That effort does help. But how can we deal with the risks we haven't identified?

One approach is to reduce the chances of failing to identify risks.

A set of risks that often escape identification are those that flow from the Power Distance of the team culture. As we discussed last time, the Power Distance of a culture is "the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions…accept and expect that power is distributed unequally." [Hofstede 2011] If you haven't yet read last week's issue, it would be helpful to read it now.

To understand how a large Power Distance makes high-risk projects riskier, consider the following illustrations. In what follows, the term team members refers to people who have relatively little formal organizational power. The terms team lead and manager refer to people who have relatively more formal organizational power.

Team members reject their own misgivings about the plan
Upon learning about the plan, or perhaps while the plan is being executed, team members develop misgivings about the plan. In Large-PD cultures, they tend to reject their own misgivings, because they know that the managers and the team lead have confidence in the plan. In Small-PD cultures, team members are more likely to respect their own assessments of plans, and then raise questions. And those questions can be helpful if managers and team leads have overlooked something, which is more likely in high-risk projects.
In Large-PD cultures, team members are more likely to assume that their own misgivings are unfounded or misplaced. Some feel that the team lead and the managers must know best. In this way, in the minds of some in Large-PD cultures, formal organizational power is a proxy for superior knowledge or talent. In Small-PD cultures, team members who realize they have doubts about a plan can be more alert to further doubts or to the possibility of problems when plan execution begins. This alertness helps the team because it leads to early attention to problems.
Team members defer reporting problems
When team members notice a problem that the plan doesn't anticipate, they must decide whether or not to notify other team members or possibly the team lead. In Large-PD cultures, the default belief is that team leads and managers have things well in hand. In Small-PD cultures, reports of problems are more likely. This helps Small-PD cultures operate more smoothly in high-risk contexts.
In Large-PD A set of risks that often
escape identification are those
that flow from the Power
Distance of the team culture
cultures, there is a tendency to defer raising issues, for at least three reasons. One reason is uncertainty as to the reality of the problem: "Maybe it will go away." A second reason is the hope that if the problem is real, another team member might report it. A third reason is a belief in team lead omniscience — the hope that the team lead already knows about the problem. In Large-PD cultures, team members can be endlessly creative in devising reasons for deferring reports of problems.
Team members report that all is well when they believe or suspect otherwise
Convincing oneself that all is well when it is not, or failing to report that all is not well, can be acts of incompetence or negligence. But reporting that all is well when one believes otherwise is another matter altogether. Concealing from the team lead or from management the fact that the plan has run into trouble can deprive leaders and managers of the opportunity to put things right.
In Large-PD cultures, the less powerful might fear the consequences of reporting problems to the more powerful. Team members might fear retaliation if they believe they might have had some role in the problem's genesis. Even if they're certain of their own innocence, they might still fear retaliation if they believe that their report might be seen as a criticism. In Small-PD cultures, where team members view themselves as collaborators of the team lead, reporting problems promptly is viewed as a responsibility. This encourages reports, which makes Small-PD cultures better able to respond to trouble.
Established ideas obstruct innovations
In Large-PD cultures, one thread that winds through all three of the mechanisms above is the tendency of team members to question themselves before they might ever question the plan, let alone team leads or management. If necessary, they're likely to conceal their doubts or even claim they have no doubts. An analogous mechanism affects the likelihood of team members questioning established assumptions, ideas, tools, or techniques, or suggesting innovations that might displace existing assumptions, ideas, tools, or techniques. To do so in a Large-PD culture would be to question anyone who accepts existing assumptions, ideas, tools, or techniques.
The likelihood of a team member questioning established assumptions, ideas, tools, or techniques in a Large-PD culture is smaller than it would be in a Small-PD culture. This is most unfortunate for the Large-PD cultures, because the team members are more likely than the planners to notice opportunities for improvement. For Small-PD cultures, suggesting innovations that might displace existing assumptions, ideas, tools, or techniques is expected. This makes Small-PD cultures better able to improve their processes.
Greater risk of the sunk cost effect
The sunk cost effect is a cognitive bias that leads us to use past investments in a project or position to justify further investment. Because of the sunk cost effect, we're more likely to continue to adhere to a position when we're more keenly aware of what we've already invested in that position. In a Large-PD culture, this effect can be amplified in situations in which people identify the position in question with people who hold power.
For example, if the team lead and the organization's management have often expressed pride and confidence in a particular past position, then the greater the power distance of the culture, the less likely are team members to suggest an alternative or an innovative substitute for that past position. In some cases, team members' reticence can be traced, in part, to their assessment of the sunk cost. In other words, the larger the power distance, the greater the impact of the sunk cost effect.

These five mechanisms illustrate how the power distance of a team culture can affect its ability to respond to risk. If you work in a Large-PD culture, consider these mechanisms and other similar ones when you develop your risk plans. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: During-Action Reviews  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Footnotes

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

Your comments are welcome

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

About Point Lookout

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.

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:

Hurricane Warning flagsDeclaring Condition Red
High-performance teams have customary ways of working together that suit them, their organizations, and their work. But when emergencies happen, operating in business-as-usual mode damages teams — and the relationships between their people — permanently. To avoid this, train for emergencies.
Stuffed bearsStart a Project Nursery
In a Project Nursery, professionals from across the entire organization collaborate to conceive of new projects. When all organizational elements help decide which projects to investigate, the menu they develop best suits organizational needs and capabilities.
A bobsled teamTeam Thrills
Occasionally we have the experience of belonging to a great team. Thrilling as it is, the experience is rare. How can we make it happen more often?
Ice on Challenger's launch pad hours before the launchDesign Errors and Groupthink
Design errors cause losses, lost opportunities, accidents, and injuries. Not all design errors are one-offs, because their causes can be fundamental. Here's a first installment of an exploration of some fundamental causes of design errors.
Selling an ideaRisk Creep: II
When risk events occur, and they're of a kind we never considered before, it's possible that we've somehow invited those risks without realizing we have. This is one way for risk to creep into our efforts. Here's Part II of an exploration of risk creep.

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

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Clouds at seaComing November 13: Thirty Useful Questions
Whether solving technical problems, creating plans, or puzzling through political tangles, asking the right questions can be the key to finding useful approaches. An example: What questions would I like to know the answers to? Available here and by RSS on November 13.
Delicate Arch, a 60-foot tall (18 m) freestanding natural archAnd on November 20: Paid-Time-Off Risks
Associated with the trend to a single pool of paid time off from separate categories for vacation, sick time, and personal days are what might be called paid-time-off risks. If your team must meet customer expectations or a schedule of deliverables, managing paid-time-off risks can be important. Available here and by RSS on November 20.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.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 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership

On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program.

Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The
Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet 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.