In Asia, Power Gets in the Way

27 Apr. 2012 | Comments (0)

"Siew Tian, why don't you speak up? I know you have something to say, and you're not saying it," I gently nudge a junior executive in Indonesia. We have worked together on various projects for several months, so I know what she is capable of. She is smart, her client service is unparalleled, and she constantly strives to learn. Yet, when her CEO enters the room specifically to seek feedback in her area of expertise, I once again watch her shrink from being a bright, outgoing creative professional to a subordinate who speaks in carefully couched, formal terms.

Does Siew Tian have self-esteem issues? Maybe a little. But the real culprit is the cultural phenomenon of how power is used in ways endemic to her region. In many Asian-headquartered corporations, this expression of power stomps flat the multi-level relationships and open communication required for innovation. When businesses fail to address issues of power, they remain vulnerable to failure.

Professor Geert Hofstede calls the phenomenon "power distance." What makes it particularly relevant in Asia? Power distance is the degree to which less powerful members of institutions and organizations accept that power is distributed unequally. In very high power distance cultures, the lower level person will unfailingly defer to the higher level person, and feel relatively ok with that as it is the natural order. The higher level person accepts this truth as well — or metes out consequences for failure to comply. In low power distance cultures, everyone expects to be listened to regardless of rank or background, and they will reject leaders whom they perceive as autocratic or patronizing.

The notion applies in any sort of community, from countries to companies to communities to families — anywhere there are two people or more. Top-down leadership exists everywhere. What makes power distance in Asian businesses special is that this aspect of the corporate culture is rooted in deeply held values in the larger culture, which makes it much tougher to shift.

Take Malaysia, for example. It has the highest power distance of any country in the world: a staggering 104 on the Hofstede comparative power distance index. This extreme division of power traces back to a joint legacy of the Malay feudal system and the influence of the British. As a result, Malay culture is very respectful of a complex, nuanced system of titled classes and untitled "commoners," and tends to grant much power to those at the top of an organization.

While Malaysia is the most extreme example, it is hardly alone in the region. A quick check of the power distance index of other countries in the region reveals high levels as well: see index results for the Philippines (very near the top of the chart at 94), Indonesia (a high 78), followed closely by Singapore (at 74). By way of contrast, New Zealand has a very low index of 22, and the cluster of countries in and near Scandinavia are also very low: Denmark (18), Sweden, and Norway (31 each). The United States is somewhere in between at 40.

What effect does power distance have on how corporations actually work? An executive coach who works in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines explains it this way: "Senior-level people get no information, and believe that they have nothing to improve upon, and junior-level people do not bring ideas forward. It's hard to innovate under these conditions." Of course, these are generalizations. Within each culture are people of different personalities, backgrounds, and experiences. But whenever I ask if the power distance is playing out in an organization, I always get a resounding yes.

Who owns the power distance conundrum? Everyone, of course. But this is one case where change must start at the top. One executive, frustrated by his organization's insistence on treating him like royalty, complains that he can't get them to change, "I tell them all the time to come to me with ideas — the door is always open! They just need to knock!" But this approach is too big a leap. Here is what we have found that works:

  • Communicate your intention. Make it clear what you want, not through edicts, but through conversations. Pay attention to how others react to you. Do they start or stop talking when you enter the room? Do they agree to what you know to be a stupid idea or an unreasonable demand? What follow-up can you provide in those moments of truth?
  • Take action. Act like you mean it. Put a plan in place as with any other change initiative. For example, change the minds of key influencers, and use their relationship power to change others. Stop broadcasting and start receiving.
  • Seek feedback. Designate a colleague to give you feedback on your attitudes, behaviors, and actions. Better yet, open up the conversation with many people. Get a 360.
  • Don't let backsliding get you off track. Accept that you are human and that this is a tough change.
  • Engage HR and create opportunities for others to learn how to speak up. It's not just about you. Others in the organization need support changing their behavior toward openness.
  • Designate an ombudsman. To enable the lower powered members of the organization to stand up, they will need help. Establish a partner for them that can negotiate toe-to-toe with higher level individuals.

Who gives up power willingly or easily? Only those motivated by the long game either for their companies' welfare, or for the societies their kids will inherit, or both. Those who believe they can afford the status quo must consider that Asian growth is attracting highly competitive, performance-based companies from the rest of the world who will do everything in their power to succeed.

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 04/10/2012.

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  • About the Author: Kate Sweetman

    Kate Sweetman Kate Sweetman is Director of Research and Curriculum at the Iclif Centre for Leadership and Governance based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Co-author of The Leadership Code: Five Rules to Lead By, she has…

    Full Bio | More from Kate Sweetman

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