What is Power Distance? (7 Examples + Definition)

practical psychology logo
Published by:
Practical Psychology

You're curious about the invisible dynamics that shape our lives—both personally and professionally. One concept that often flies under the radar but holds immense importance is power distance.

Power Distance is the measure of how power is distributed and accepted in relationships, institutions, and societies. It affects how you interact with your boss, your teacher, or even how a country is governed.

Stay with us to learn about the history of this fascinating concept, why it varies from one culture to another, and how it's shaping the future.

History of the Power Distance Concept

authority figure

In the 1960s, social scientists and anthropologists began probing into the invisible forces that shape human interactions. Early researchers like Edward T. Hall focused on cultural communication, basically how people from different backgrounds interact and understand each other.

Their work set the stage for what would later be known as the study of power distance. The term didn't pop up overnight; it evolved through years of research and observation.

Now, meet Fons Trompenaars, another significant contributor. He expanded on the idea by introducing cultural dimensions, which are like different yardsticks for measuring various aspects of culture.

Trompenaars' theories highlighted how power distance isn't just a standalone concept, but rather interconnected with other cultural norms and values.

Next on the list is Mary Douglas, an anthropologist who focused on grid-group cultural theory. This theory looks at how social pressures shape human behavior. While not directly studying power distance, her work influenced the idea by emphasizing that societal structures impact the individual.

Finally, there's Erving Goffman, known for his work on microsociology. He studied face-to-face interactions and provided insights into how power dynamics come alive in the smallest of social settings, like a casual conversation between friends.

All these thinkers, in their unique ways, have fed into the development of the concept of power distance. Their contributions help you understand not just what power distance is, but also why it varies so much across different settings and cultures.

What is Power Distance?

Think of power distance as a social thermometer. It measures the temperature of power relationships in any given setting—be it your family, workplace, or an entire country.

First off, power distance is often categorized as either high or low.

In a high power distance environment, there's a clear hierarchy. Think of a traditional corporation where orders flow from the top down, and employees don't question their bosses. Everyone knows their place, and there's not much room for crossing those invisible lines.

Contrast that with a low power distance setting. Here, hierarchies are flatter, and people feel more at ease interacting with those in authority. Start-ups often exemplify this model. Employees can voice their opinions, and leaders may even sit in open-plan offices right next to junior staff. It's more about collaboration than command.

Power Distance Index (PDI) is the term often used to put a numerical value on this concept. This index shows how much less powerful members of a society accept that power is distributed unequally. In simpler terms, it tells you how okay people are with a few having most of the control.

It's also crucial to understand that power distance is not about the actual distribution of power, but rather the perception of it. For example, two companies might have a similar hierarchical structure, but employees at one may feel more comfortable offering suggestions than those at the other.

Another layer to add is the concept of asymmetry. In relationships with high power distance, the asymmetry is more pronounced. What does this mean? Basically, one side holds more sway and the other side accepts this as normal. In low power distance scenarios, the asymmetry is reduced; both parties have more equal footing.

The social constructs of respect and deference also play into power distance. In high power distance cultures, respect is given based on position or age, not necessarily on merit. In contrast, in low power distance cultures, societies value earned respect, where your ideas and contributions speak louder than your title.

You'll also find that power distance can shift depending on the situation. In some families, for example, parents and children may operate on a low power distance basis, engaging in open dialogue. Those same parents, however, might work in environments with high power distance, where they wouldn't dream of questioning their superiors.

The lens of power distance can also be applied to national cultures, affecting things as diverse as government styles, laws, and even how people cross the street. Countries like Japan and Mexico tend to have high power distance, while nations like Denmark and New Zealand rank low.

In summary, power distance is a multifaceted, dynamic concept that affects almost every aspect of your social interactions. Whether it's in the classroom, the office, or the corridors of government, understanding the subtleties of power distance can offer you a roadmap for how to behave and what to expect from others.

The Geert Hofstede Model

man bowing before a king

Now that you've got a solid grasp on what power distance is and why it matters in your day-to-day interactions, let's look at a man who put this concept on the global map: Geert Hofstede.

Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist and one of the pioneering figures in the study of cultural dimensions.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hofstede conducted a groundbreaking study using data from IBM employees across 50 countries. He identified several dimensions of culture, and you guessed it, one of those was power distance.

What Hofstede introduced was the Power Distance Index (PDI), a quantitative way to gauge and compare power distance among different cultures.

With this index, he was able to rank countries based on the acceptance of power imbalances among their people. It offered a way to make sense of cultural power differences that were often misunderstood or overlooked.

But Hofstede didn't stop there. He also showed how power distance could be related to other cultural differences he identified, like Individualism vs Collectivism and Masculinity vs Femininity.

For instance, countries with high power distance often also score high on collectivism, indicating that the society values group harmony over individual opinions.

Ever wondered why some countries seem to have stricter workplace hierarchies, or why others prioritize team consensus before making a decision? Well, often, it can be traced back to their PDI scores. Cross cultural research uses this score to communicate these differences.

Hofstede's work has been both celebrated and critiqued, but its influence is undeniable. It has become a cornerstone in fields like international business, anthropology, and of course, psychology. His model serves as a starting point for anyone interested in cultural studies and provides a structured way to approach the complexities of human interaction.

In short, Geert Hofstede took the idea of power distance and gave it structure, allowing us to analyze, study, and most importantly, apply it in a range of settings. Whether you're an aspiring business leader, a student of psychology, or just someone keen to understand the world better, Hofstede's work offers invaluable insights.

Power Distance in Schools

You've probably noticed that some teachers are all about strict rules and hierarchy. There's no talking back or challenging the authority.

In this case, you're looking at a classroom with high power distance. Students are less likely to voice their opinions and the teacher-student relationship is more formal. The focus here is often on rote learning rather than critical thinking.

Switch gears and consider a classroom where students are encouraged to engage in open discussions, even debate with the teacher. This is a classic example of low power distance in action.

The environment fosters creativity and independent thinking. Here, your grade doesn't just depend on memorizing facts but on how well you can apply them.

Power Distance in the Home

strict family

In families with high power distance, decision-making is usually centralized. Parents make the rules, and the kids follow.

Disobedience is often met with strict consequences, and there's less negotiation about family rules. It's the kind of setup where you'd hear phrases like, "Because I said so," as a justification for parental decisions.

Contrast this with low power distance families where children may actively participate in family decisions. Family meetings, open discussions about rules, and shared responsibilities are common features.

The parent-child relationship is more akin to that of mentors and friends rather than authority figures.

Power Distance in the Workplace

In a job setting with high power distance, your boss's word is law. You're less likely to negotiate your tasks or question the status quo. Companies with a strong hierarchical structure often fit this mold.

On the flip side, workplaces with low power distance offer a more egalitarian atmosphere. Open-door policies, team brainstorming sessions, and a focus on merit over title are standard features.

Power Distance Across Cultures

Let's explore how this concept of power distances is deeply rooted in entire societies and cultures. Yes, power distance doesn't just stop at your front door or the walls of your office; it extends to shape the fabric of nations.

Let's start with countries that exhibit high power distance.

In these societies, respect for elders and authority figures is deeply ingrained. The social hierarchy is not just understood but also accepted, sometimes even celebrated.

Countries like India, Russia, and Saudi Arabia often fall into this category. Here, you'll find that traditions and customs often emphasize social rankings, whether it's in the form of specific titles or ways of greeting.

Then there are countries with low power distance, where equality and decentralization are cherished.

Societies like Sweden, Australia, and the Netherlands emphasize democratic values, freedom of expression, and individual autonomy. When interacting in such cultures, you may find that titles and ranks are downplayed, making social interactions more casual and straightforward.

But it's not just about classifying countries into "high" and "low" power distance boxes. Many countries exhibit a mix of both, depending on various factors like historical events, colonial influence, or even economic structures.

Take the United States, for example. While it generally leans towards low power distance with its emphasis on individualism and meritocracy, you can still find high power distance environments, especially in formal institutions like the military.

You might be wondering why this matters to you. Well, consider this: Understanding the power distance of a culture can significantly impact your experience when you travel, move, or even do business internationally.

Your awareness of these cultural underpinnings can help you navigate new environments more effectively, avoiding misunderstandings that could arise from different expectations around authority, power relations and hierarchy.

How Power Distance Shows Up

example of body language


How does power distance impact communication? Understanding this can be your secret weapon in becoming a more effective communicator, whether you're giving a presentation, negotiating a deal, or just having a casual chat.

A person's individual power distance orientation will affect how they communicate with others.

When there's high power distance, communication tends to be more formal and indirect.

In a workplace, for example, you might send a carefully-worded email to your boss rather than directly approaching them with a concern. The language is often more polite, filled with honorific titles and less use of first names. You're also less likely to interrupt or question someone in a position of authority during a conversation.

In low power distance settings, the communication style is usually more direct and straightforward. People speak their minds openly, even when it means disagreeing with someone higher up in the hierarchy.

The use of first names is common, and formal titles are often set aside to create a more collegial atmosphere. Interrupting someone to clarify a point, express disagreement, or offer an opinion is generally more accepted.

But what happens when different styles collide? Imagine you're a manager accustomed to a low power distance environment, and you're dealing with a team member from a high power distance culture.

They might not voice their concerns openly, not because they agree with you, but because they don't want to challenge authority. Recognizing this gap in communication styles can help you adapt your approach to encourage more open dialogue.

The same awareness is valuable in international business. If you're negotiating a deal in a country with high power distance, understanding the indirect and formal communication style can help you read between the lines and grasp what's not being explicitly said.

Body Language

Yes, the way people carry themselves, the gestures they use, and even their facial expressions can be influenced by their perception of power distance. This is where the unspoken speaks volumes.

In a high power distance culture, body language is often more formal and reserved. You'll find fewer casual gestures like slapping someone on the back or giving a high-five. Instead, you may encounter bows, salutes, or more formal handshakes.

Eye contact can also be minimal, especially when someone lower in the hierarchy is interacting with a person of authority. It's a sign of respect, a way to acknowledge the power dynamic without saying a word.

Switch to a low power distance culture, and you'll notice the opposite. Body language is more relaxed and open. Eye contact is often direct and sustained, indicating confidence and equality.

Gestures like thumbs-up, informal handshakes, and even hugs could be common, depending on the context and level of familiarity between the people involved.

But why should you care about this? Think about it. If you're traveling or working internationally, understanding the preferred body language can make your interactions smoother. It helps you resonate with the people around you and minimizes the risk of unintentional disrespect or misunderstandings.

Even within your home country, being aware of these nuances can assist you in diverse settings, such as when dealing with people from different backgrounds or generations.

And it's not just about decoding other people's body language; it's also about being conscious of your own. You can adjust your gestures and expressions to align with the cultural norms of the environment you're in.

This adaptability can be a huge asset, whether you're negotiating a business deal, giving a public speech, or simply trying to make a good impression.

The Psychology of Power Distance

Power distance isn't just about external structures; it's deeply rooted in our psychological makeup.

Our upbringing plays a pivotal role. If you're raised in a family where parents are strict and their decisions are final, you might grow up more comfortable with high power distance. You learn early on that authority figures are to be respected and not questioned.

Now, consider if you were raised in a family that encouraged open dialogue and treated children's opinions with equal importance. You're likely to have a lower tolerance for power distance, expecting a similar level of equality in other areas of your life.

Cultural stories and media also shape our perceptions. Fairy tales with kings and queens, movies with powerful heroes, or songs about rebellious spirits—all contribute to our understanding of power dynamics. These narratives can either reinforce or challenge the status quo of power distance.

But it's not all set in stone. Personal experiences, such as education, travel, or work, can shift our views.

Maybe you studied abroad and were exposed to a different power structure, or you joined a company that either upheld a rigid hierarchy or encouraged a flat organizational structure. These experiences can nudge our perceptions of power distance in new directions.

Why is it important to understand these psychological underpinnings? Because they affect how we interact with the world. If you're aware of what shapes your views on power distance, you can better understand your reactions to authority and even predict how you might fit into new environments.

The Future of Power Distance

The global landscape is shifting beneath our feet. Technology is a massive force flattening hierarchies and bringing people closer. With social media, a person can tweet at a CEO or a world leader and receive a direct reply.

Online platforms have given a voice to those who were traditionally voiceless, and as a result, people now expect more horizontal, democratic forms of engagement even in formal settings.

Furthermore, the younger generations, like Millennials and Gen Z, are entering the workforce with a new set of expectations. They often seek workplaces that value collaboration and inclusivity, which naturally fosters lower power distance.

They want their voices to be heard, regardless of their position on the corporate ladder. This is influencing how companies structure their teams and how leaders interact with their employees.

But let's not forget the cultural aspect. As the world becomes more interconnected, cross-cultural exchanges are becoming the norm. Cross cultural communication is increasingly more important, and high power distance countries need to learn how to work with low power distance countries, and vice versa.

This mix of perspectives is leading to a reevaluation of traditional power structures. In some cases, it could mean a blending of high and low power distance norms, creating new, hybrid models of interaction.

So, what does this mean for you? As the future unfolds, being adaptable in the face of changing power dynamics will be key.

Whether you're entering the job market, climbing the career ladder, or simply engaging in everyday interactions, being sensitive to these shifts will help you navigate them successfully. You'll need to be able to read the room, so to speak, understanding when to assert your ideas and when to yield to collective decision-making.

In conclusion, the future of power distance is likely to be characterized by more fluid and dynamic structures. The trends suggest a move towards lower power distance, but traditions and cultural norms won't disappear overnight. By staying informed and adaptable, you can be better prepared to meet the challenges and opportunities that these changes bring.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

  1. What is power distance?
    Power distance is a way to describe how people belonging to a specific culture view power relationships - that is, the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
  2. How does power distance affect communication?
    Power distance influences communication by setting the tone for how direct or indirect interactions should be. In high power distance cultures, communication may be more formal and hierarchical, while in low power distance cultures, it can be more open and egalitarian.
  3. Can power distance impact workplace relationships?
    Yes, power distance can significantly impact workplace relationships, affecting how managers and employees interact, the level of formality in the workplace, and how decisions are made and communicated.
  4. Does power distance only apply to the workplace?
    No, while power distance is often discussed in the context of workplace dynamics, it applies to all areas of life, including family structures, educational institutions, and social interactions.
  5. Are there countries with low power distance cultures?
    Indeed, countries such as Denmark, New Zealand, and Sweden are often cited as having low power distance cultures, where equality and participatory decision-making are highly valued.
  6. What are examples of high power distance cultures?
    Countries like Mexico, South Korea, and India are typically considered high power distance cultures, where authority is rarely questioned and hierarchical structures are firmly in place.
  7. How is power distance measured?
    Power distance is typically measured using Hofstede's Power Distance Index (PDI), which assesses a society's level of power distance on a scale based on responses to survey questions related to authority and power distribution.
  8. Can an individual’s background influence their perception of power distance?
    Yes, an individual's family upbringing, personal experiences, and cultural background can all influence how they perceive and handle power distance in various aspects of life.
  9. Is power distance a static cultural feature, or can it change?
    Power distance is not static; it can change over time with societal shifts, globalization, and generational changes within cultures and organizations.
  10. How might understanding power distance be beneficial to me?
    Understanding power distance can improve your intercultural competence, help you navigate social and professional settings more effectively, and enhance your ability to communicate and lead within diverse environments.


You've ventured through the depths of power distance, uncovering its essence, witnessing its impact on communication and leadership, and uncovering the psychological currents that drive our perceptions of hierarchy.

As you look back on this journey, it's clear that power distance is more than a dry academic term—it's a living, breathing aspect of our daily interactions, shaping the way societies function, businesses operate, and individuals connect.

In conclusion, power distance is a fundamental concept that can help you decode the invisible rules of social and professional engagements. As you move forward, remember that these rules are not fixed; they are evolving with the tides of cultural change, technological advancement, and generational shifts.

Keep your eyes open to these changes, and stay flexible in your approach. Whether you find yourself in a boardroom or a classroom, at a family gathering or a new city, understanding power distance will give you an edge—a way to understand the unseen, to build bridges across differences, and to navigate the complexities of human relationships with grace and insight.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, November). What is Power Distance? (7 Examples + Definition). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/what-is-power-distance/.

About The Author

Photo of author