Cultural Perceptions of Power in Organizations: Low and High Power Distance

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  • 0:05 Geert Hofstede's Research
  • 0:50 Formal, Informal, and…
  • 2:03 Why Does Power Type Matter?
  • 3:08 The Cultural Perspective
  • 3:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rob Wengrzyn

Rob has an MBA in management, a BS in marketing, and is a doctoral candidate in organizational theory and design.

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.

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