Balancing Power

Great leaders recognize that different cultures view power differently, emotional intelligence expert Dan Goleman writes.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

An executive at headquarters sent out a new directive to the firm’s software designers. When it arrived at the company’s Copenhagen branch, one software designer emailed another: “I can’t believe the arrogance of this new directive from company headquarters! Who do they think they are? They don’t decide how we’re going to meet our division’s goals; that’s our responsibility!”

The software team at the firm’s Manila office also read the directive at the same time. “Finally, they told us what they want!” one Philippines-based software designer told a colleague. “Why didn’t they do this sooner? Don’t they know that we don’t make decisions like this? That’s their job!”

As these drastically different responses show, effective management is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. These responses illustrate what’s known as “power distance.” That’s one dimension of cultural differences in a theory developed by Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede. Based on reviewing a large database of IBM employees in many countries, Hofstede’s work is a cornerstone of our understanding of cultural differences.

In a culture with high power distance, such as the Philippines, there’s a general belief that power should be concentrated at higher levels and that power provides social order. In countries with low power distance, including Denmark, there’s a value in power being distributed equally. This doesn’t mean that every individual in those countries views power in this way. Rather, it reflects the general culture of the country.

Why power distance matters

I was recently reminded of power distance while reading a report by the Center for Creative Leadership on how empathy in leaders impacts their performance. Looking at data from more than 6,700 leaders in 38 countries, they found that empathy is positively related to job performance—no surprise there.

But the CCL researchers also found the connection between empathy and performance was even stronger in countries with high power distance. In such countries, leaders support and protect their subordinates like parents care for their dependents. Leaders who have more empathy are better able to assess the needs of the people with whom they work, a useful skill for leaders anywhere, especially high power-distance countries.

A power-distance strategy

How would skillful leaders interact with those designers in Denmark and in the Philippines? First, they’d use the emotional intelligence competencies of Empathy and Organizational Awareness to recognize the differences between the different offices. And, they’d adjust their approach to each. In settings or with individuals where high power distance is the norm, leaders use their authority to tell employees what they want done and how they want it done. And, they anticipate and provide the resources needed to get the work done.

In settings or with individuals with low power distance, savvy leaders use a different approach. They convey their goals to employees and engage with them about how they will work to achieve those goals, letting the employees largely decide how to reach the goal. They also use their skill with Influence, another EI competency, to build buy-in from those employees.

Bottom line: Apply the appropriate power-distance strategy wherever you are in the world.