Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Cultural differences UK-Poland: Power distance

Whenever you sit down to do a serious analysis of cultural differences between two countries, you invariably come across the postać* of Geert Hofstede, anthropologist. His Cultural Dimensions Theory may be almost half a century old, but it's still the best set of tools to measure those "have you noticed that Poles tend to _____, while Brits are more likely to _____?" differences empirically.

If, dear reader, his name's new to you, and you have an interest in the cultural differences between the UK and Poland (or any other pair of nations), have a read about him and his works, do.

Essentially, Prof Hofstede defines six axes along which these differences can be plotted:
  • individualism-collectivism
  • uncertainty avoidance
  • power distance (strength of social hierarchy) 
  • masculinity-femininity (task orientation versus person-orientation)
  • long-term vs short-term orientation
  • self-indulgence vs self-restraint
I'd like to focus on power distance, which can be boiled down to the steepness of the hierarchical pyramid. A short power-distance culture is one in which the boss is democratic, has an open office door (or even works in the same open-space as everyone else), and takes decisions based on consensus. A long power-distance culture is one in which the boss is autocratic, remote, the trappings of power are made obvious, and the boss's decisions are not up for discussion.

Reading the above paragraph, you can immediately tell that the UK has a shorter power-distance than Poland - and Prof Hofstede's Power Distance Index shows this to be the case. On a scale of 1-120, where 1 = totally democratic and 120 = totally autocratic, the UK scores 35, Poland 68. Bear in mind that the research was carried out decades ago. My guess is that both countries have moved in the direction of a shorter power distance, with Poland maybe moving faster than the UK, but the UK still having a significantly shorter power distance than Poland.

Differences in power distance between the UK and Poland (and within Poland) can be seen by the use of the form 'Pan/Pani' to address one's boss. In the UK, it's first-name terms from the outset, and so it has been, generally, since the 1970s. Finding a Polish-owned company (even in the UK) in which an employee can address their boss in first-name terms, is rare.

The notion of an autocratic, paternalistic boss or ruler, accepted by those of lower status, is in Western European terms, rather pre-Enlightenment. The French Revolution and the American War of Independence, were about saying 'no' to an autocrat's divine right to rule.

In the context of the rise of civilisation, the emotionally-intelligent, aware leader is conscious of the sources of their leadership attributes (innate intelligence, good education, determination, physical mien) and does not feel a need to lord it over their subjects or employees. In return, the subjects or employees feel they can participate in decision-making, and have a greater sense of ownership and engagement in their society or company.

High power distance, therefore, is less civilised than low power distance. We humans, like all animals, naturally seek a place in a hierarchy. The higher the better. The notion that 'I'm it, you're shit' is something that civilisation has sought to temper. Through good manners, politeness, respect for others regardless of their natural place in the hierarchy. And yes, political correctness. Democratic societies tend to laugh at pompous buffoons. The success of Britain's best TV comedy shows - from Dads Army to The Office - is based on this.

The shorter the power distance, the more it behoves those in power to be understood by those over whom them have authority. A high power-distance leader can waffle on in a boring drone, his subjects noting his every word (and making the effort to understand what is being told to them). A low-power distance leader works on that speech to make sure that everyone gets the message, couched in plain, clear language. Tax offices too - compare the UK's tax return form with the Polish one. The former - a model of clarity (with a Diamond Mark from the Plain English Campaign). The Polish one - well, you need to hire and advisor to tell you what's required of you.

But what can we see today? People are confused, anxious, lost. Globalisation has created winners and losers. Consensus and democracy has failed the Western world. Elites are plotting to keep the little man in his place. And so the little man seeks someone strong, someone who can take the tough decisions to make the world a less uncertain place. Someone like Trump or Putin.

The less plugged in to the complex operations of government and business people are, the less they know about what is actually going on, the more likely they are to believe conspiracy theories and seek a strong 'cut through the bullshit' person who will make their world clearer.

It is a fallacy. It was proved a fallacy in the rubble of German cities in 1945.

Voting for an autocrat is a dangerous short-term fix.

* Postać. Figure? Character? Personage? Naah! Postać in this context is a word missing from English. I suggest it becomes a loan-word. Pronounce it POST-atch. With a short 'o' like in 'box'.

This time two years ago:
Wes Anderson's Grand Hotel Budapest

This time four years ago:
Painting the Forum Orange

This time seven years ago:
That's what I like about the North

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