Throughout the world, individuals have perceptions of how power is distributed. Some believe it is distributed equally, and some do not. That perspective also carries over into how they view power (and the types of power) that are distributed in an organization.
Geert Hofstede's Research
During the 1960s and 1970s, a gentleman by the name of Geert Hofstede conducted some groundbreaking research. He researched thousands of individuals working for IBM worldwide in regards to several different areas. One of those areas was power distance, which is the when those less powerful in a society accept and even expect that power is distributed unevenly. It is measured as an index on a scale of 1-100, where 40 would be considered a lower power distance (we believe power is distributed more evenly) and 80 would be a high power distance (where we believe power is not distributed evenly). This one concept directly relates to how individuals of different cultures view power and how it is distributed in an organization.
Formal, Informal and Expert Power
The concept of power distance is easy to understand. It focuses on how society deals with the inequality present among its people. Taking that a step further, we can see how an organization has to handle inequality among its employees. Some departments or individuals have more power (formal, expert or informal) within an organization than others. This can cause issues as some employees might feel they have no say, or are not heard or even that they are not valued.
Thus, formal power is power that is bestowed upon an individual due to their position within the organization. A manager would have formal power over his or her employees. The opposite of that is informal power - when an individual has a position of power over others, but it is not part of the hierarchical structure of the organization. A person could just be a strong leader in an organization that has weak leaders, thus they have informal power as they stand out against those that are present.
Finally, we have expert power, which is power bestowed upon an individual that has knowledge of an area that is expert in nature. Typically, this could be an engineer or a designer that has expert power because he or she knows more about a product or a process than anyone else in the organization.
Why Does Power Type Matter?
The reason power type matters is that typically, when this issue is reviewed, individuals focus mostly on formal power, and in many cases that is correct. But as we just discussed, there are several types of power in an organization, and how they are distributed (equally or unequally) can impact organizational behavior.
Let us say, for example, you are a sales manager and are having trouble with an engineering manager and his team getting you the information you need, when you need it. The information they supply is good, but they do not get it to you in time. You sit down with the owner of the company to discuss this, but because the engineering manager might have expert power over you (the company cannot design what they sell without him), you will not get what you want out of the conversation.
The power distance is great and the engineering manager has expert power over you, though it has nothing to do with your position in the company's organizational structure. Consequently, while you live in the U.S. (which has a low power distance index, which means we do believe power is distributed evenly), you still have to deal with the types of power that are present and how evenly they are distributed.
The Cultural Perspective
Different cultures have different interpretations of power distance. Thus, it is not just left up to those in an organization, but also those of different cultures working in an organization. Taking it from that perspective, if you are in an organization that has individuals from China, Canada, the U.S. and Brazil, you will have a mixture of individuals with varying power distances.
For example, in Canada and the U.S., we believe power is distributed equally, so we have a low interpretation of power index. On the other hand, China and Brazil have a high power index, meaning they believe power is unequally distributed. Putting these individuals in the same company obviously has an impact on how they will act when it comes to power and management within the organization.
Power distance is a measurement of how those less powerful in a society accept and even expect that power is distribute unevenly. It is purely a cultural perspective, as different cultures look at power differently. However, taking that into account, there are different types of power in an organization:
- Formal power: Power bestowed upon an individual due to their position within the organization
- Informal power: When an individual has a position of power over others, but it is not part of the hierarchical structure of the organization
- Expert power: Power bestowed upon an individual that has knowledge of an area that is expert in nature
Thus in an organization, we are dealing with how different cultures view power distance and the types of power that are present.
After finishing this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define power distance and understand how it is measured
- Distinguish between formal power, informal power and expert power
- Explain why it is important to consider each power type in an organization
- Understand that different cultures have different perceptions regarding power distance