Power and distance

I'm guessing that most people in the organisation theory world are somewhat familiar with Geert Hofstede's work on national culture. I've just facilitated a course on cultural change with a group of twenty people of various nationalities and a range of organisations. The two days was threaded throughout with questions about the role of leaders in changing an organisation's culture. The whole power/distance thing came up. (One of the dimensions that Hofstede talks about).

In Hofstede's thinking (if we apply his national typology to an organisation) thinking of culture as part of the power/distance dynamic looks attractive. He says: 'This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people. People in societies exhibiting a large degree of Power Distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low Power Distance, people strive to equalise the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.'

The general opinion in the room was that leaders i.e. those at the top of the hierarchy are responsible for an organisation's culture and it could only be shaped 'top down'. These people felt that those with hierarchical power 'owned' the culture. We discussed various organisations: Ford under Alan Mulally, IBM under Lou Gerstner, Zappos under Tony Hsieh, all lauded for leading the charge on their organisation's culture.

The people in the room were working in hierarchical organisations with relatively high 'Power/Distance' in the Hofstede terminology. Their roles involved 'changing the organisation's culture', but this is difficult to do if you believe that the top of the hierarchy leaders are responsible for it. Where is the 'power' of the agents trying to effect the change if they are in the middle or bottom of the hierarchy? (See my blog on Tops, Middles, and Bottoms).

Take a different view that power is not only held by hierarchical leaders. It is held by all sorts of players in an organisation and takes many forms: the admin assistant who is gatekeeper, the despatcher of an airline who has the power to say yes or no to departure. There are many powerful players at low hierarchical levels in the organisation – they are not usually trying, in Hofstede's terms, to equalise the distribution of power. (In hierarchical organisations this could be career-limiting). They are often distant from those at the top. Nevertheless, they too, have often profound influence on the culture. Power and distance works both ways.

You can see this visually when you look at the work of Rob Cross on organisational network analysis or Alex Pentland on social physics – both of whom use technology to map organisational and societal interactions. Their work clearly shows power/distance relationships working in multiple ways and well outside the view of power/distance as shown on a traditional organisation chart. Pentland, in an interview, remarks that: Social physics helps us understand how ideas flow from person to person through the mechanism of social learning and ends up shaping the norms, productivity, and creative output of our companies, cities, and societies. This sounds like culture change to me.

So, I'm in my usual sceptics' camp this time alongside those who critique Hofstede's work. Look at one example here. Better in my view to think of power and distance more as part of the wicked problem of addressing culture change not as part of a tame problem that puts hierarchical leaders 'in charge' of organisational culture. Yes, they have a part to play but so do multiple others.

Continuing our discussions in the training it seemed as if participants warmed to the idea that 'culture change' is not wholly or even necessarily leader dependent. I'm looking forward to hearing how they're doing as they start applying the new thinking into their organisations.

What's your view on power/distance in organisational culture change? Let me know.

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