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The concept of power distance comes from social science research into human responses to social, economic and political inequality. Dutch social psychologist Mauk Mulder developed the theory, but Geert Hofstede, another Dutch researcher, expanded and popularised it, turning power distance into a major subject of discussion in international business circles. The theory allowed Hofstede to distinguish between different cultures on the basis of their willingness to accept inequality. High power distance cultures tend to accept inequality as natural rather than problematic, and share other characteristics including hierarchical social organisation, an emphasis on leadership, clearly defined roles for subordinates and a lack of social mobility.
Clearly Defined Hierarchies
High power distance cultures treat social hierarchy as part of the natural order. The powerful enjoy special rights and privileges without guilt and exercise authority without accountability to those below. Within high-distance cultures, those at the top of the hierarchy expect deference and respect from those below, and those below do not object because they know their place. The "Handbook of Social Psychology" cites studies showing that "in high power distance settings, metaphors about the family are used in describing authority figures and their relationship with their subordinates," suggesting that paternalistic attitudes guide interactions between leaders and lower-status people.
Emphasis on Leadership
High-distance cultures attach significant importance to leadership, in part because of the perception that an organisation's leader defines the character of the organisation as a whole. Hofstede illustrates this with a comparison between low- and high-distance strategies for social reform. In low-distance cultures, reformers will reorganise institutional hierarchies to accomplish their' goals. Geert Hofstede notes that in high-distance societies "the way to change a social system is by dethroning those in power." This may explain why authoritarian rulers often control countries with high-distance cultures, and why violent revolutions in such countries rarely change the overall political system.
Role of Subordinates
While most institutions require some form of hierarchical organisation to function effectively, the roles of subordinates differ in high- and low-distance cultures. Subordinates in high-distance cultures do nor ordinarily exercise independent judgment or initiative, and expect their leaders or bosses to provide explicit directions, At the same time, however, a leader's control over his subordinates' actions does not mean he will accept responsibility for failure. Instead, he will ordinarily treat subordinates as expendable, and will sacrifice them to preserve his own position in the hierarchy.
Lack of Social Mobility
Low social mobility also characterises most high power distance cultures. An acceptance of hierarchy already normalises social inequality, but societal perceptions of certain personal characteristics make it very unlikely that individuals can rise above their current status. In high-distance societies, a person's status depends on their race, gender, educational level or family background. Michelle LeBaron explains that "status within such societies is usually ascribed rather than earned" so that even if status markers such as education change, immutable markers like race continue to act as barriers to social advancement.
- "Culture's Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations"; Geert H. Hofstede; 2003
- Clearly Cultural: Power Distance Index
- "Handbook of Social Psychology, Volume 2"; Susan T. Fiske et al.; 2010
- "Conflict Across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences"; Michelle LeBaron et al.; 2006
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