Meaning of Power Distance in Organizations

Power distance really came to the fore during the investigation of several accidents to Korea Air aircraft. On listening to one flight recording, the co-pilot was heard warning the pilot of a critical situation, but the warning was so polite and expressed so ambiguously that it was not clear that they needed to land as a matter of extreme urgency.

The pilot followed the normal landing procedure instead of declaring an emergency and the aircraft duly crashed before it could land.

It was discovered that in Korea, it is the norm for subordinates to have excessive respect for a superior, even when the gap is as little as that between pilot and co-pilot, and this high power distance made it very difficult for the co-pilot to speak in other than very respectful circumlocutions. His inability to overcome his cultural bias resulted in the deaths of many people.

This resulted in an investigation of power distance between pilot and co-pilot and a list of "good" (low power distance) and "bad" (high power distance} airlines was drawn up. This concept was then taken further and applied to business. Earlier, there had been other references to power distance. in his book "Up the Organization", Robert Townsend mentioned that the light of conviction was often in the eyes of very junior people and he espoused the principle of delegating authority to the person who would be most impacted by any change as they would be more aware of practicalities.

There do seem to be many advantages to a low power distance in that problems and opportunities are more easily communicated to those capable of doing something about them.

However, there should till be someone with authority and responsibility to take a decision, otherwise, if the power distance is too low it can result in an endless debate. Management by consensus is notoriously time-consuming and ineffective, as it require everyone to agree on a solution and this may not be the best solution if evaluated by impartial criteria, but a compromise, where the goal is to keep everyone reasonably satisfied with the decision.

The end result for an organization operating in a competitive environment is unlikely to be a happy one..


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