Power Distance: Definition and Examples

what is power distance

When studying to become an industrial or organizational psychologist or in similar fields of expertise, a student may wonder, “What is power distance?” The power distance definition relates to a construct that refers to social relationships and power. Understanding the definition of power distance could help a person in their studies or in their job as a psychologist in the corporate setting.

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory was created by Geert Hofstede, a Dutch management researcher, in 1980.   He was the first psychologist to conduct a cross-country study on power distance that covered fifty countries and thousands of employees from IBM.  The framework is used to help understand cultural differences and power relations across counties and the way business is done.  Hofstede created six categories to define culture.  These include:

  • Power distance Index
  • Collectivism vs. Individualism
  • Uncertainty Avoidance Dimension
  • Femininity vs Masculinity
  • Short-Term vs Long-Term Orientation
  • Restraint vs Indulgence

How Did Hofstede Define Power Distance?

Power distance refers to the strength of a society’s social hierarchy. The Power Distance Index (PDI) measures the extent to which those people who are at the lower end of the hierarchy accept the fact that social stance or power is not distributed equally in the society. Both psychologists and sociologists use this measure.

A high power distance setting means that a specific culture accepts the inequality in power differences.  A high power distance culture encourages bureaucracy and support rank and authority.

A low power distance index within a culture means that they support a flat organizational structure with decentralized decision-making responsibilities.  Low power distance cultures prefer a participative management style.

Researchers have found that people at the bottom of a social hierarchy tend to prefer a system that would distribute power equally, while people who are at the top of the hierarchy like things exactly how they are. The people at the top do not want to lose any of the power that they have accumulated.

How is PDI Calculated?

Hofstede created power distance scores for 50 counties and three regions using the answers to three survey questions. The questions included:

  • How frequently the employee was afraid to express disagreement with their managers
  • Employees’ perception of their boss’s decision-making style
  • Employees’ preference of their boss’s decision-making style

He coded the answers so they were represented in a numeric format.  He then computed the mean score for equal samples of people from each country.  Using a statistical procedure, he sorted the questions in clusters, or factors.  Finally, he added or subtracted the three scores after multiplying by a fixed number and adding another fixed number.  His result was a numeric score for each country and region studied.

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More Research on Power Distance

Mauk Mulder also studied power distance.  Mulder had the idea that as societies weakened in power distance, the underprivileged population rejects their power dependency.  He conducted laboratory experiments focused on the social and organizational context of a low power distance culture (the Netherlands) and found that people attempt “power distance reduction”.  His findings include:

  • Individuals with power seek to preserve or increase their power distance from their subordinates
  • When the power distance is small, there’s a greater chance that less powerful individuals will try and make that distance even smaller
  • When there is a large power distance between a power holder and a subordinate, a power holder will try and make that distance even greater

The Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness (GLOBE) Project

In 1990, Robert J. House at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania defined power distance as “the degree to which members of an organization or society expect and agree that power should be shared unequally”.  The Project measures practices and values of:

  • industry
  • organization
  • society

The study found that four main factors affect the power distance of a society.

  • beliefs
  • values
  • religion
  • democratic tradition/strong middle class

How the Power Distance Measure Is Used

The power distance statistic is used to find out how much people at every level of a social hierarchy accept their position in it and the setup of the hierarchy how it is right now. It is a judgment of satisfaction or dissatisfaction of the hierarchy based on the subject’s place within it. Power distance is a subjective measure, and there is no way to examine it objectively.

Power distance contributes to cultural norms.  Cultural norms are shaped by our perceptions and general acceptance of power inequality in organizations and society.

Applications of Power Distance

According to Clearly Cultural, the applications of power distance include evaluating hierarchies and how societies change over time. Within those applications, scientists can also discover how the individuals in those hierarchies or societies feel about the changes as those changes take place. Power distance affects what is normal or perceived as normal in a society or culture. Researchers use it to study rates of acceptance of cultural norms or expectations and to determine what the consequences are when a culture or hierarchy changes.

Power Distance Culture Examples

What is power distance in culture?  There are many ways to use power distance in social research and industrial and organizational psychology.  One example of power distance in social research is comparing income inequality. In some places, the power distance of income inequality is low. This means that there is a small spread between the richest and the poorest of people in society. Austria is an example of a low power distance country on this measure. Saudi Arabia is a high power distance country.

Power Distance and Work Culture

In psychology, power distance can be used to measure workplaces. In a high power distance organization, there is generally a centralization of decision making as a result of a rigid hierarchy.  Leaders at the top have significantly more power than their general workforce.  Formal communication chains and a strong command structure are typical in these types of organizations.  High power distance culture examples include:

  • Special treatment for people in power.  This could include special dining areas or parking places.
  • Presence of a gatekeeper figure that serves to separate members of leadership from employees.
  • Layers of management serve no distinct purpose, just add to bureaucracy
  • Employees are dependent on those with power to provide direction and are not able to take their own initiative on work assignments

In lower power distance organizations, control tends to be decentralized.  The organizational structure is flat, and status doesn’t have the same importance that it does in high power distance cultures.  The leadership team is easily accessible, and employees are actively encouraged to participate at all levels of the organization.   Other low power distance examples are organizations where:

  • Employees have independence
  • There’s a justification for a hierarchy.  Leadership positions aren’t created “just because,” there is a legitimate reason for adding a new layer of management
  • Equality rules
  • Managers have an open-door policy.  Employees can easily access leadership when necessary

Each type of organization requires a different type of leadership style.  Authoritarian leaders tend to thrive in a high power setting and democratic leaders do better in low power distance settings.  Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

The Importance of Power Distance in International Business

As we discussed earlier, different countries have different power distances.  The United States has a low power distance index (40), while Mexico has a high power index (81).  A business leader from the US could expect to find a leadership structure in Mexico where only a few people have the power to make decisions.  A leader coming to the US from high power distance countries like Russia or the United Arab Emirates should expect a more equitable approach to decision making.


Knowing different psychology concepts such as power distance could help a psychologist or psychology student understand cultural diversity, interpersonal relationships, and power dynamics better. Knowledge of this concept could also facilitate handling problems in a corporation’s workforce. Knowing the answer to the question, “What does power distance mean?” is a good step forward in the study or practice of organizational and industrial psychology.

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