Power Distance

Last Friday, as part of selection process, a candidate for the position of physics teacher taught spherical mirrors to class 9. She taught acceptably well, but wrongly explained ‘principal axis.’ When she completed the lesson and left the class, I asked the students if the teacher had made any mistake. Promptly, a boy pointed out the error and other students nodded in agreement.

This is not unusual. For years we have seen that the students do not correct a teacher even if they notice a mistake or inconsistency in logic. Often, students knowingly repeat the wrong answers in tests so that they don’t lose marks. The teachers lose opportunities to learn, which is the best reward of their profession. The students grow submissive and expect similar behavior from others when they grow up.

The school diary has a beautiful poem from Tagore:

“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; … Where words come out from the depth of truth; …”

In hierarchical organisations (all organisations are hierarchical – implicitly and explicitly) the subordinates mostly do not correct mistakes from the boss commits. In the manager-subordinate relationship, the subordinate does not show disrespect by “talking-back” to the manager.  The boss is always right when he is present. Behind the boss, they revel ridiculing him for the errors he commits. Some wait for such opportunities. Some create situations where the boss can go wrong. Reasons for the distancing may be many – lack of shared objectives, missing team spirit, no mutual trust, no humility … it is part of culture.

India is the largest democracy of the world. But, our elected representatives ask the high command to appoint their leader – they do not elect their own leaders. Fear of the boss, scare of going down in the pecking order, greed to stay in power, need to cover-up misdeeds … many factors contribute to this unhealthy shameful situation. Most of the political parties do not have democratic processes.

Several management gurus have given us slogans like “customer is always right… customer is God…” Quality of products and services is the joint responsibility of the seller and buyer. If one party plays god, there is no parity and no room for win-win. Any party is right when right and wrong if wrong. Without this cadence, we cannot build a trusting relationship. Servitude by one party will not help in building mutual respect.

Many a scientists were marched to gallows by the Church for their inventions that contradicted the belief system considered advantageous by the Church. In Hindu  culture, at times, quoting a Sanskrit verse from an ancient text seems to be argument enough to quieten a person with different views. The high priests of the society interpret the scriptures to their advantage and circumlocute the argument. Scientific inquiry is not permitted. When people don’t speak up, the consequences can be dire.

“Mark you this, Bassanio,
The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”

–          “The Merchant of Venice”, by William Shakespeare

Hofstede’s Power Distance Index (PDI) is a measure of how close or how distant a relationship superiors and subordinates expect from each other. Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers: The Story of Success” analyses how flight safety is affected because of high PDI in the chapter “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes.”

PDI has become part of Cultural Intelligence. Much depends on how we bring up our children at home and in schools. Do we expect them to be little adults or blindly obedient? Is a disagreement a sign of disrespect? Do you as parent decide what the child should wear and eat or can the child has an opinion? Do you pronounce “I will make my son an engineer and the daughter a doctor” without ever considering the child’s passion and strengths?

Of the 66 countries evaluated for PDI, ClearlyCultural.com finds India having a PDI of 77. The best is Austria with a score of 11.

Coming back to the schools, let us strive to reduce the power distance between faculty and administration; and between teachers and students.


About pgbhat

A retired Naval Officer and an educationist. Has experience with software industry. A guest faculty at different institutes and a corporate trainer with software development companies.
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2 Responses to Power Distance

  1. Anil says:

    Sir, I’ve been a regular reader of your blog and a fan of your writing. I love the way in which you pick up everyday topics and embellish them with examples and anecdotes. Keep the good work going. Happy Deepavali..!


  2. Keshav says:

    A very good lesson in Management. Thank you.
    It is not surprising to see India with a score of 77. What is really surprising is Singapore at 74 & Hong kong at 68. It is said that Asians (Singapore, China, Hong Kong etc) have a much higher IQ than the rest of the world. Singapore & Hong Kong also are the best places in the world for free market thinkers (& Entrepreneurs) and are supposedly very low on corruption index. It doesn’t add up that people here don’t question authority. May be I need to read Hofstede’s book “Cultures & Organizations”.

    Happy Diwali


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