Blogpost 09

Power & Distance

Power and Leadership

This is a follow-up post on the question of power distance and how to reduce it between leaders and employees, as posed by a high ranking leader at Bosch during the BarCamp at the end of january.


So during the "Eye-level" or "Augenhöhe" session of the Bosch Barcamp,  one leader, responsible for an entire plant and therefore relatively high in the hierarchy, was very much interested in how to get to eye-level with his employees on all levels of the company. And while there are lots of talk on how trust and open communication are important for that (and they), I had to break some bad news: I don't think this is completely possible. At least, if you consider "eye-level" to being almost equal.


Nonetheless, I belief the enterprise of getting to eye-level with employees to be a worthy one and therefore, I will modify the question a little bit and than answer it: How can we reduce the distance between leaders and followers accross hierarchical levels?

Power Distance

How to reduce the gap between leaders and followers?

To answer this question, I plan on taking a detour into two different research streams. The first introduces the idea of "power distance" as a measure of first, how far two people in a system can be hierarchically seperated and second, how accepted that distance is within the same system. And secondly, I want to talk about power itself and how it changes human behavior, often for the worse.


By the combination of these two, I hope to shed some light on the question: Can we get to eye-level with employees lower on the hierarchy.

Power and Distance

What is Power Distance?

So what is power distance? In a fairly recent paper published in 2014 in the Journal of Management, Daniels and Greguras identify the concept as "the degree to which individuals, groups, or societes accept inequalities (e.g. inequalities in power, status, wealth) as unavoidable, legitimate, or functional (Hofstede, 1980)". In other words, individuals might hold the idea that power holders (leaders, functionaires, etc) deserve respect and even that differences in power or wealth are functional and beneficial in society. Some of this might ring in the idea of the "trickle-down"-economy, which genereally argues that lower tax-burdens for the very rich generate jobs.


While power-distance ist often regarded at the national level (Dutch have lower levels of power distance than Japanese, for example), there are significant differences between individuals or groups in any society.


What is the effect of having a higher power distance? Well, according to a meta-analysis by Taras, Kirkman and Steel from 2010 in the Journal of Applied Psycholgy higher levels of power distance are not all bad. For individuals living in a high power distance context, it leads to higher levels of commmitment, trust, and job satisfaction (among others), but also reduced feedback seeking, more unethical behavior and less self-esteem. So while employees in such a system tend to show some good tendencies (from a companies point of view), there are definate downsides as well. Furthermore, while groups with higher power distance show greater levels of cooperation, this does not lead to higher levels of performance. Rather, groups with high power distance actually perform worse.


And one thing, several studies have shown (Rine, Steel & Fairweather, 2012; Shane, Venkatamaran & MacMillan, 1995; Van de Vegt, Van der Vliert & Huang, 2005; in Taras, Kirkmann & Steel, 2010) that higher power distance is not helpful for innovation. One reason for this might be because in groups with a high power distance, those higher up have more power to assert their position and push through their ideas, while the vast majority of low-level employees, who might otherwise have the necessary expertise to provide great ideas, cannot do this. Therefore, power distance is not likely to be helpful in innovative and competetive contexts.

Back to Power

Back to power

So where are we in terms of power distance? Germany ranks 35 on the Power-Distance-Inventory, compared to Austria at 11, France at 68 and Saudi-Arabia at 80. So Germany is somewhere in the middle to low area of the scale, though remember that this might differ greatly among individuals and groups.


The idea of reducing the power distance within a group is a good one. It will likely encourage people to speak up, create more self-esteem among workers and spark more innovation. The question becomes, what can leaders (who are, by design of their position, of higher power) reduce the gap?

For this, we need to address the power literature itself. Power, depending on the definition, is the means and the ability to enforce one's will over others (Sturm & Antonakis, 2016). It can come in the form of a formal position, but also in less tangible ways like so-called referent power. This power-base will encourage others to yield to a request due to a high level of identification with the person making the request.


Power is also something variable. Power in one setting, for example as the CEO of a company might translate to very little power in another context (i.E. at home). And furthermore, power not only affects others, but also the wielder of the power in some very interesting and sometimes disturbing ways. Some very intersting research has been done in this area, foremost by Dacher Keltner and his colleagues and is very nicely summarized by Rachel Sturm and John Antonakis. For example, power holders tend to rely less on information provided by others due to limited ressources and time to evaluate them. Other effects are summarized in the next table.

Overview of the effects of personal power on leader behavior
Sturm & Antonkais (2014). Table 2: Examples of How Power Can Influence Cognition, Affect, and Behavior

What now?

What can leaders do? Not only does Keltner provide a deep insight into the way power might influence its holder, he wrote an exhaustive piece on how to deal with that in Harvard Business Review in 2016. It's a read I highly recommend, though I will summarize some of the main points.


One of the main problems identified by Keltner is that power tends to immunize the holder from doubt, energize him/her and make him/her less sensitive to the feelings and needs of others. Often this is the result of time constraints, a leaders time being more valuable and in demand than that of a employee. Hence, leaders need to hoard their time and cannot give as much thought to every opinion. This behavior then might lead to employees being hurt because their opinion was not valued, and might even impact the company if that employee opinion was actually better than the leaders. To combat this, Keltner highly recommends self-reflection in order to combat these "blind spots" that otherwise powerful people get. Besides some regular (daily) meditation on the topic, he also recommends three areas to reduce the effect of power on the holder: Empathy, generosity and gratitude.


An in order to practive these things, Keltner does provide several recommendations, for example:


For empathy:

"Ask a great question or two in every interaction, and paraphrase important points that others make."

"Listen with gusto. Orient your body and eyes toward the person speaking and convey interest and engagement vocally."


For generosity:

"Publicly acknowledge the value that each person contributes to your team, including the support staff."

"Use the right kind of touch—pats on the back, fist bumps, or high fives—to celebrate successes."


For gratitude:

"Seek opportunities to spend a little one-on-one time with the people you lead."

"Delegate some important and high-profile responsibilities."


Of course, besides those things, other steps can also be taken to reduce power distance: Having regular unforced contact with employees, eating with them, refraining from overtly demonstrating wealth (don't wear Armani when your workers don't) and so on.


Now that you know that power distance is and how power effects those who hold it, you can consult the resources provided here, i.e. the Harvard Business Review Article by Dacher Keltner as well as the scientific literature to fight the negative effect power might have on you, as well as to reduce the distance between leaders and followers in order to get a more innovative, open and productive community.