Cultural Psychology: the Power Distance Index and Asian Culture

I read a lot of cultural psychology, and find that it is relevant to my experiences as an Asian American and explains a lot of the dynamics I see around me. I want to share some of these ideas and hope that they are relevant to others.

Most of these ideas come from Geert Hofstede, a cultural psychologist who surveyed the employees at the multinational company IBM and identified four dimensions or characteristics of cultures. The first of these is the power distance index (PDI).

Power Distance is the distance a person feels or keeps between themselves and a person in a position of power. Asian culture is high power distance, which means that subordinates maintain a distance from their superiors and have a sense of respect or even awe of them. On the other hand American culture is low power distance, which means that subordinates see their superiors as approachable and their superiors’ decisions as negotiable.

A person acquires their attitudes toward power from their upbringing. In British culture, for example, it is customary to treat children as “little adults.” They express their opinions, are allowed to contradict their parents and say what they want or don’t want. I think this explains what always seemed like a phenomenon to me– of very articulate children who are comfortable conversing with adults.

In a culture with higher power distance, a child does not speak as much with authority and is taught obedience. Disagreement may be taken as a sign of disrespect, and as a child you are expected to take what is given to you. Although countries are ranked along a gradient and it is all relative, Asian countries are generally high power distance.

The attitude a person acquired growing up transfers to the manager-subordinate relationship in the workplace. An Asian employee might not disagree with his or her manager because they do not want to “talk back” or disrespect him or her. They feel obligated to just accept whatever their superior says. This makes Western management techniques such as “Management by Objectives” ineffective because they presuppose that an employee would negotiate their objectives. However if the employee is uncomfortable saying “no,” they would simply agree to the projects and be stuck with an unreasonable workload.

Overall, management in high PDI cultures is more paternalistic — “the benevolent autocrat” or “good father,” whereas management in low PDI cultures is more “consultative.” In diverse workplaces the discrepancy between these styles can cause a lot of misunderstanding– a manager may increase the workload without considering or even remembering what the subordinate already has, and continue to do so as long as the subordinate doesn’t say anything to remind him of the situation. Meanwhile, the employee doesn’t say anything or make much of an attempt to reduce his workload. Instead he burns himself out accommodating the manager’s demands, even at the expense of his own health or well-being. He wonders at his manager’s appalling lack of consideration.

Does this strike a chord with anyone?

(source: Cultures and Organizations, Geert Hofstede and Gert Jan Hofstede)

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About Lily Huang

Lily Huang is a writer of Taiwanese descent, who lives on the East coast. She grew up in suburbia completely oblivious to Asian culture, and is making up for it now.
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