Power distance

Power distance is the strength of societal social hierarchy—the extent to which the lower ranking individuals of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.[1] It is primarily used in psychological and sociological studies on societal management of inequalities between individuals, and individual's perceptions of that management. People in societies with a high power distance are more likely to conform to a hierarchy where "everybody has a place and which needs no further justification".[1] In societies with a low power distance, individuals tend to try to distribute power equally. In such societies, inequalities of power among people would require additional justification.[1]

Dutch Psychologist Geert Hofstede was the first to conduct a major cross cultural study on power distance. He created the Power Distance Index as a way of measuring whether a country has high, moderate, or low power distance.[2] In a country with high power distance, someone in a position with a lot of power, is respected and looked up to while in a country with low power distance, someone in a position of power is not viewed or treated with such a high level of respect.[3]

Development and studies on the theory

Geert Hofstede

Cultural dimensions theory

Hofstede, the famous business anthropologist, developed the cultural dimensions theory, used widely as a crucial framework for cross-cultural communication. It is the earliest theory that could be quantified and used to explain perceived differences between cultures and has been applied extensively in many fields, especially in cross-cultural psychology, international business, and cross-cultural communication. It was driven by the statistical procedure (also called "factor analysis") to make the development, based on the result of a global survey of the values of IBM employees conducted from 1967 and 1973. Hofstede's theory identified six dimensions of culture, which are power distance, individualism vs collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity vs femininity, short-term vs long-term orientation, and indulgence vs self-restraint.[4]

Power Distance Index (PDI)

The Power Distance Index is designed to measure 'the extent to which power differs within the society, organization and institutions (like the family) are accepted by the less powerful members'.[5] It indicates the level of power distance and dependent relationships in a country by assigning a score to each country. The PDI also represents society's level of inequality that is defined from below rather than from above. As Hofstede stressed, there is no absolute value and PDI is useful only as a method to compare countries.[6]

Hofstede derived the power distance scores for three regions and fifty countries from the answers given by IBM employees in the same type of positions to the same questions. The detailed steps to calculate the PDI is as follows:

1. Prepare three survey questions:

  • How frequently, in their experience, are they afraid to express disagreement with their managers? (mean score on a 1-5 scale from "very frequently" to "very seldom")[7]
  • Subordinates' perception of their boss's actual decision-making style (percentage choosing either the description of an autocratic or of a paternalistic style, out of four possible styles plus a "none of these alternatives")[7]
  • Subordinates' preference for their boss's decision-making style (percentage preferring an autocratic or a paternalistic style, or, on the contrary, as type based on majority vote, but not a consultative style)[7]

2. Pre-code the answers so that they are represented by a number (e.g. 1,2,3,4...)

3. Compute the mean score for the answers of equal sample of people from each country or percentage for choosing particular answers

4. Sort the questions into groups which are called clusters or factors by using a statistical procedure

5. Add or subtract the three scores after multiplying each with a fixed number

6. Add another fixed number

  • Lower PDI Culture: Low PDI cultures: In lower PDI cultures, the emotional distance is relatively small. There are more democratic or consultative relations between expecting and accepting power. People are relatively interdependent to the power holders, and there is relatively low inequality of power distributed among the people. Under these circumstances, the decentralized authority and flat management structure is common though not universal. It means that both managers and subordinates will, on average, be relatively less concerned with status, and the distribution of decision-making responsibility is extensive. Thus, the 'open door' policy is more easily used then elsewhere, which means the individuals in superior positions are not only more likely to be open to listen to those in inferior positions, but subordinates are also more likely to be willing to challenge or give suggestions to their superiors. For example, in this culture, if one wants to get a promotion, one would prefer to get their ideas across to their boss directly. Examples of countries with low PDI are the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, and the Nordic countries.[8]
  • High PDI Cultures: These are cultures in which the power relations are paternalistic and autocratic, and where there is centralized authority. In other words, there is a wide gap or emotional distance which is perceived to exist among people at different levels of the hierarchy. There is considerable dependence of people on power holders, which, in psychology, is known as counter-dependence (denounce, but with negative sign). In the workplace, the subordinates are willing to accept their inferior positions. The boss, in turn, may be not asked for broad participation in the process of decision making. Thus, unlike in lower PDI cultures, the 'open door' policy has been replaced by an autocratic leadership style, which means subordinates may be unlikely to approach and contradict their bosses directly.[7] For instance, even though employees may want to be promoted, it is entirely their boss's decision and they have no say in it. Generally, countries with high power distance cultures hold that there is nothing wrong with inequality and thus, everyone could be in specific positions. Additionally, people in higher positions usually display and promote the use of status symbols: powerful individuals would not eat lunch at the same cafeteria as people in lower positions, and there are large numbers of supervisors who are entitled to special privileges, for example. Belgium, France, Malaysia, and the Arab World can be regarded as examples of countries or regions with high PDI cultures.[8]

Limitation of Hofstede's model on power distance

Hofstede's study made a great contribution to the establishment of the research tradition in cross-cultural psychology. However, limitations still exist.

Firstly, each stage of the research process reappears as a political act of neutralization—of making the unneutral seem neutral. The questionnaire reflects a large power distance: its questions were explicitly designed to resolve the normative concerns of researchers. To further explain, it primarily served the concerns of those who needed to do comparative analysis and created it through "coercing a culturally distinct axis of comparison" on a variety of employees.[9]

Secondly, the questionnaire adopted an obviously western methodology to analyze non-western countries and it is also relatively selective in representing the inequality within the western countries. For example, the PDI concentrated on the boss and subordinate relationship, which could be seen as biased, as it ignores other forms of western inequality. Apparently, the questions failed to measure the racial, colonial, and broader class inequalities which should be taken into account into the measurement of power distance.

Other notable studies

Early studies

Haire, Ghiselli, and Porter

In the middle of the last century, Haire, Ghiselli, and Porter[10] explored the differences in preferences for power among different cultures with remarkable outcomes, even though they did not mention the concept of power distance. The methodology they adopted was by questionnaire, which was based on Maslow's hierarchy of needs with some modification. The aim of the questionnaire was to evaluate how managers from 14 countries were satisfied regarding their needs when they were in their current positions. The dimensions that were linked to power distance across cultures in their questionnaire were autonomy and self-actualization. Autonomy

  • The authority that comes with their management position.
  • The degree to which independent thinking and action are allowed in their management positions.


  • The chance for personal progress and advancement in management positions.
  • The sense of self-achievement one derives from being in a management position.
  • The sense of achievement from being in a management position.

In accordance with the responses to the questions in their questionnaire, the 14 countries were clustered into five main groups, which they labeled Nordic-European (Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Sweden), Latin-European (Belgium, France, Italy, and Spain), Anglo-American (England and the United States), Developing (Argentina, Chile, and India), and Japan (by itself). One important thing from this analysis is the various mean standardized scores that the five groups presented with respect to autonomy and self-actualization. For these figures, positive ones mean greater satisfaction of need than for the average manager across all 14 countries, while negative ones mean lesser satisfaction. Their results are presented in Table 1.

Haire 1966 Autonomy Self-Actualization
Nordic European .36 .25
Latin European -.16 .23
Anglo American -.14 -.09
Developing -.25 -.11
Japan -.25 -.11

Upon the figures listed in the table, some implications are drawn. They are complicated, and summarized as follows: – Nordic-Europeans who were surveyed were extremely contented with the satisfaction of their desire for power; – Anglo-Americans were rather discontented; and – the other clusters desired more power than they currently had in their positions

One important implication from this study is that countries can be clustered according to their preference for power. Besides this, some of their differences can be explained by the influence of the following factors: the predominant religion or philosophy, an established tradition of democracy, the long-term existence of a middle class, and the proportion of immigrants in each country.


Another major study of power distance was the one that was undertaken by Mauk Mulder.[11] It was based on the premise that as societies become weaker in power distance, the underprivileged will tend to reject their power dependency. Mulder's laboratory experiments in the social and organizational context of the Netherlands, a low power distance culture, concluded that people attempted to seek "power distance reduction".[11] He found that:

  1. More privileged individuals tend to try to preserve or to broaden their power distance from subordinates.
  2. The larger their power distance is from a subordinate, the more the power holder would try to increase that distance.
  3. Less powerful individuals try to decrease the power distance between themselves and their superiors.
  4. The smaller the power distance, the more likely is the occurrence of less powerful individuals trying to reduce that distance.

From these findings, he concluded that a condition of quasi-equilibrium had arisen. In this condition, power holders have achieved a certain distance from people who lack power, and this distance is hard for the powerless to bridge.

After Hofstede – The GLOBE Study

Following Hofstede,[12] the GLOBE project defined "power distance" as "the degree to which members of an organization or society expect and agree that power should be shared unequally."[13] Power distance was then further analyzed as one of the nine cultural dimensions explained in the "Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness" (GLOBE) Research Program, which was conceived in 1990 by Robert J. House of the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania.[14]

Given the major premise that leader effectiveness is contextual, the research was conducted by believing that the social and organizational values, norms and beliefs of those who are being led are closely connected to the effectiveness of the leader.[15] GLOBE measures the practices and values that exist at the levels of industry (financial services, food processing, telecommunications), organization (several in each industry), and society (62 cultures).[16] The results are presented in the form of quantitative data based on responses of about 17,000 managers from 951 organizations functioning in 62 societies throughout the world, which shows how each of the 62 societies scores on nine major attributes of cultures, including Power Distance, and six major global leader behaviour.[17]

Regarding power distance, GLOBE researches cultural influences on power distance values, practices and other aspects, including 'Roots of Power Distance', 'The Psychological Stream and Power' and 'The Cross-Cultural Stream and Power Distance'. It also investigates how family power values are taught, and makes a comparison of high versus low power distance societies.[18]

When discussing 'The Cross-Cultural Stream and Power Distance', four primary factors affecting a society's level of power distance are explained separately, and they are the predominant religion or philosophy, the tradition of democratic principles of government, the existence of a strong middle class, and the proportion of immigrants in a society's population.[19] Among the four fundamental phenomena, there always exists connections; however, it is concluded that a society's main beliefs, values, and religion, will have the strongest and longest lasting influence on power distance. Then, this will be moderated by a democratic tradition and the existence of a strong middle class to some extent. Moreover, the two factors are both expected to affect narrowing power distance. Therefore, for a Roman Catholic society, which is exposed to democracy and a middle class, would be on the way to narrowing power distance. Though its level of power distance could be reduced over time, it would still be higher than a Protestant country, which has a democratic tradition and a large middle class. Finally, a large proportion of immigrants in a given society makes the low power distance trend stronger in all circumstances presented above. In addition, it is concluded that regardless of religion, any society that does not have a tradition of democracy or a significant middle class will have a substantially high power distance levels.[20]