Power distance

Power distance is 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]

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.[2]

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'.[3] 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.[4]

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')[5]
  • 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')[5]
  • 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)[5]

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 universial. 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.[6]
  • 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

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[8] 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 1966AutonomySelf-Actualization
Nordic European.36.25
Latin European-.16.23
Anglo American-.14-.09

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.[9] 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”.[9] 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,[10] 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.”[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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).[14] 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.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17] 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.[18]

Applications and effects

Power distance is such a significant dimension in cross-cultural environments that it is unconsciously influencing people's behaviour in different countries, which contributes to so–called 'cultural norms'. These 'cultural norms', shaped by perceptions and acceptance of power inequality to a certain degree, lead to various reactions when facing same situations or in the same environment. However, there are some consequences resulting from acquiescence in inequality in organizations and societies, especially for high power distance countries.[19]

The workplace

Effects on management style

In organisations with high power distance, employees acknowledge their lesser standing, and are respectful and submissive towards their superiors; who in turn, are more likely to give orders rather than consult with their employees while making decisions. Status symbols are often displayed and flaunted. Employers or managers would not have meals together with their subordinates, and might have private facilities such as rooms, parking lots, and elevators. Having a high level of education is important to climb the corporate ladder, and the higher-ranking members of the organization are often paid much more than their employees in comparison with companies with lower power distance.[20]

On the other hand, in businesses with low power distance, bosses are not as concerned with status symbols and would be more open to employee discussion and participation. Employees are less submissive to their superiors, and are more likely to make themselves heard or to challenge the management.[20]

Effects on employees' behaviour of help seeking

In high power distance regions, people in the higher positions hold great amounts of power with little challenge. The hierarchy and authority empower employers and supervisors with more rights of resource allocation, rewards and punishment, which in turn reinforce their status, as well as enable them to lead and guide their subordinates autocratically. The hierarchical differentiation between the top and the bottom gradually creates an invisible gap in the workplace, where the subordinates tend to build greater sensitivity and cautiousness when communicating with their supervisors.[21][22]

It is a common phenomenon that junior employees turn to their seniors for help and advice when getting into a new environment. Yet, some researchers recently attested that employees and junior staff from high power distance countries are less likely to seek help from their supervisors.[19] One of the reasons is that lower ranking staff have few chances and time to meet the high ranking managers in person. The hierarchical system is far more sophisticated and restricted that subordinates are usually only able to reach their immediate supervisors.[23] In addition, it is widely believed that the action of asking for help is equivalent to incompetence or lack of ability, which subdues themselves into an unfavourable circumstance. What is worse is that some of the supervisors who are incapable of solving more complicated problems will become suspicious of his or her subordinates, regarding the problems as a challenge to their status and capabilities, or even as humiliation from the lower ranking staff.[24] Such climates have gradually reinforced employees to think that it is more effective and efficient to deal with difficulties by themselves, rather than talking to their managers. The indisputability of power and authority widens the gap between different levels, while the acceptance of inequality consolidates the endurance among the bottom, stopping the subordinates seeking help from the top.

There is another main perspective that leads to a larger gap between the supervisors and subordinates. In a high power distance environment, supervisors tend to pay more attention on tasks rather than human beings that are the main focus for supervisors in a low power distance environment.[25] Apparently, task orientation emphasizes heavily on daily work completion and performance efficiency, yet the top-bottom relationship grows far more slowly since there is a lack of communication beyond work, which in turn reduces subordinates' willingness of seeking help from supervisors.[26] Compared to low power distance countries, equality is embraced by the society that power is minimized to a large extent, where authority and hierarchy are not highlighted and supervisors are accessible and willing to build close relationship with subordinates, whose worries of any harm are turned down when seeking help from the top.[19]

In charitable behaviour

According to research, people from high power distance countries are generally less responsible towards charitable behaviours than people from low power distance countries.[27] The explanation for this phenomenon is that the rooted perception and acceptance of inequality somehow blinds their eyes to any unfair or inappropriate situations, which they may consider as a normal social circumstance and simply accept it rather than making a change.[28][29] Cumulatively, the more inequality they accept, the less inconformity they will notice, and the less responsibilities they will take eventually. The consequence is high power distance enlarging the gap between human beings in terms of relations and wealth conditions. Conversely, people in low power distance countries are more sensitive towards any unequal phenomena. Their unacceptance of dissonance endows them with a greater sense of responsibility for adjusting or correcting the problems in person.[28][29]

Influence of controllable/uncontrollable needs

The types of needs are influencing people's charitable behaviour regardless of their power distance backgrounds. The needs generated are classified into controllable and uncontrollable categories, where the occurrence of the former is due to lack of effort while the occurrence of the latter is due to unforeseeable events such as natural disasters. The ability of whether individuals are able to control the situations affects how they will react to the raising needs.[30][31][32]

On the one hand, the level of power distance does have an influence over a society's reaction towards controllable needs. People with high power distance background perceive most of the issues as rightful inequality, hence are reluctant to get themselves involved with 'troubles', and therefore most of the time they choose to turn a blind eye on such petty things. Conversely, low power distance societies are intolerant with unfairness and thus their higher sense of responsibility motivates people to make an effort in eliminating dissonance in every possibility.[27] Yet, there seems to be an exception. It is found that people are not sympathetic at all to those in trouble due to internal-controllable reasons. In other words, it is most likely that people reckon those who are lazy, careless, greedy or indulgent, deserve such hardship and punishment, instead of giving a hand to them to go through the difficulties.[33] In this situation, even if there is an evident unequal phenomenon emerging, the willingness of charitable behaviours are attenuated to the least in both high and low power distance countries.

On the other hand, people tend to be more responsible in terms of uncontrollable needs, whereby they are more willing to offer aid to. It is assumed that people consider that the aid for uncontrollable needs will not greatly change societal rightful inequality, and hence generous assistance and help will be offered to those in need regardless of power distance background.[30][33][34][35] In such circumstances, a sense of duty is more likely to be raised, where people tend to undertake charitable behaviours.[27]

Influence of communal/exchange relationship norms

The relationship norms behind the needs also affect the sense of responsibility. The types of relationships are mainly classified as exchange relationships, in which people are expecting a reasonable privilege or benefit in return for offering aid; and communal relationships, where those giving assistance are wholeheartedly and generously taking care of those in need without any expectation of material return.[36][37] According to research, people are more likely to refuse to aid when encountering needs associated with exchange relationships rather than needs with communal relationships, which has proved to alleviate the influence of power distance belief and increase the willingness and responsibility of assistance.[27][37][38][39]

Therefore, Winterich recommended that charitable organizations in high power distance countries should stress the significance of uncontrollable needs or salient communal relationship norms, through which the populace are more easily motivated to make a difference on social inequality.[27]

Effect on conformity/autonomy

Power distance has a strong influence on whether a society is more conformist, or whether it practises more autonomy. In societies with high power distance, individuals tend to be more conformist and dependent, and thus would be less likely to engage in behaviour that is not socially acceptable. In societies with low power distance, individuals are not as pressured to follow societal norms, and are more likely to act according to their own wishes and desires.[40]

Examples of cultures with high and low power distance

Malaysia has one of the highest levels of power distance, with a score of 100 on Hofstede's Power Distance Index (PDI).[41] This signifies that Malaysians would generally consent to, and not question, hierarchies in which everyone has a place. They would perceive hierarchy in organisations as mirroring intrinsic inequalities. Leaders are expected to be autocratic, and to instruct their subordinates on what to do. Malaysian society is often centralised, and opposition to authority is generally not welcomed.[41]

With a PDI score of 11, Austria is one of the countries with the lowest levels of power distance. Austrians believe in independence, equal rights, approachable leaders, that chain of command should only be for convenience, and that supervision should facilitate and empower. Power is typically decentralised, with leaders often consulting or relying on their subordinates. First names are usually used even with superiors, and communication is direct and two-way.[42]

Linked factors


Paternalism, which is the extent to which the responsibilities of the family are pushed on to society, including the protection of the less fortunate from being exploited by the privileged, has also been widely considered to be closely linked to power distance. In societies with low levels of paternalism, parents will have a reduced role in looking after their children as the latter mature into adults, and they are expected to distance themselves from their families and become independent. On the other hand, in paternalistic societies, multiple generations might live together in the same home. It has been argued that societies with high power distance encourages people to abide by paternalism, and individuals are more likely to turn to their superiors or authority figures in times of need. Therefore, Western cultures and countries with low levels of paternalism tend to also have low power distance levels, and Eastern cultures and countries (including Russia) with high levels of paternalism, tend to have high power distance levels.[40]


It has been hypothesized that there is a link between climate and power distance, with societies in warmer climates more likely to have a higher power distance than societies in colder climates. As food and other necessities are relatively easier to come by in warm, comfortable climates, survival is not as difficult, and thus there is no need for rigorous discipline, preparation, or hardship. It has been argued that these conditions would give rise to a situation whereby it is beneficial for strict organisation and direction to come from superiors in order to propel people to cooperate effectively, even if it goes against the will of some people.[20]

On the other hand, in colder, harsher climates, it is imperative for individuals to have discipline and prudence to work hard and make the right decisions in order to survive. In these societies, if one were to be lazy and rest for a day instead of searching for food, they might not be able to survive. Therefore, self-discipline and restraint is paramount in these climates. With these qualities ingrained in the people, social order does not need to be enforced externally.[20]


It has been asserted that democratic governments occur most commonly among low power distance societies, where it is not ingrained into the minds of the people since young age that there are unquestionable hierarchies in life that should not be disputed. It has been found that the 'ideological breach between labour and conservatives' is exceedingly polarised in high power distance socieites, while in low power distance cultures, people would tend to try to attain balance between the two extremes in order to avoid damaging and draining conflicts. This is why unions in high power distance cultures are usually formed by corporations or governments, while those in lower power distance societies are usually less 'ideological' and more 'practical'.[20]


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