Who’s in Charge?: The Story of Bob, Juan and Carlos
Cultural Value Difference: Power Distance

By Don Rutherford
Reprinted from Business Mexico, February 1, 2005, Volume: 15, Issue: 2, Page: 36(2).

Bob is a distribution manager for a U.S. automobile manufacturer in Mexico City. His boss, Juan, is Mexican, as are most of his peers and all of his subordinates. Bob has been in the big city for only a few months and he has a problem, actually a bunch of problems. He recalls that only a few weeks ago he felt he could have taken on the world and won. Now, he questions his ability to sell peanuts to passing motorists.

Bob came to Mexico feeling confident that the management style which brought him so much success in the U.S. would propel him to similar success here. He reasoned that by involving all Mexican staff in the process of selling their cars, they could easily attain double digit growth.

When our new distribution manager brought together his direct reports, he assumed they would be in the best position to know how to grow the business in their respective regions. So rather than telling them what he thought needed to be done, he put the question on the table and sat back to listen. Only then did Bob realize how quiet Mexico City could be.

After some time Bob felt he needed to jump start the conversation, so he tossed out his idea of using more billboard advertising. The group eagerly supported the idea as a fine one. Then there was silence once more. The process repeated itself a couple of more times before the meeting finally ended and Bob escaped to his office in frustration. He saw his 2 year assignment in Mexico stretching out before him as a lifetime of potential failure. Bob pondered whether his workgroup was made up of a bunch of dopes or people without initiative.

It mightn’t have been so bad but Bob was having a terrible time with his boss Juan too. Bob had been eager to share his ideas on the way things worked in the States. Despite making what he thought were insightful suggestions time after time in meetings, his relationship with his boss seemed to grow colder.

Bob began fearing that the company’s Mexicans operations were a bust – that incompetence and bureaucracy ruled. When in a clearer frame of mind, he acknowledged that this part of the company was showing good profits and growth. Perhaps, there was something wrong with him, he thought. Perhaps, he was not cut out for international or as great a manager as he thought.

There are many possible explanations for Bob’s experiences. The one I will explore here is the cultural difference, Power Distance, as described by intercultural researcher Geert Hofstede. Based on his research, Mr. Hofstede has placed a number of country cultures on a continuum from Low Power Distance to High Power Distance. A low power distance culture is one in which the hierarchy is low and decision-making is shared. A high power distance culture is one in which the hierarchy is considered very important and bosses are not disagreed with lightly. No culture is only one extreme. All cultures have some mix of the two ends of the continuum.

Low Power Distance
High Power Distance
Democratic management style. Authoritarian; power is centralized.
Power is not usually jealously guarded.
Manager shares authority with subordinates.
Managers hold on to power. There is not much delegation of authority.
Subordinates take initiative and are not very deferential to managers. Subordinates do not like to be micro-managed. Subordinates do not typically take initiative, but wait for explicit instructions.
Decision-making tends to be consultative. Decisions are made at the top.
It’s okay to disagree with the boss. One does not openly disagree with, or say no, to the boss.
Manager / subordinate relations are fairly informal. Rank has few privileges. Manager / subordinate relations are fairly formal. Rank has its privileges.
Manager must earn right to power through performance. Employees accept that a manager has the right to more power.
In order to get things done, the hierarchy can be bypassed. No one bypasses the chain of authority.
Employees prefer the impersonal authority of agreed upon objectives. Employees prefer the personal control of superiors over impersonal control systems.;
Titles, status and formal position play a smaller role. Titles, status and formal position command respect.
Senior people are not necessarily older and male. Senior people are typically older and male.

The placement of a few selected countries from Hofstede’s research:

United States
France, Brazil
Mexico, China

Bob took one of his leading lights, Carlos, with whom he felt he had a pretty good relationship out for lunch to get his open opinion.  In this relaxed one-on-one situation, Carlos explained that the employees were expecting him to take a stronger lead. That’s why he earns the big bucks. They might actually be considering him weak or unqualified for not doing so. Carlos deferentially suggested that Bob treat his boss with a bit more respect and be careful of the timing of his disagreements. Carlos advised Bob to take care not to appear to undermine his boss’s authority, especially in front of others.  Carlos briefly reviewed the concepts of Power Distance with Bob.

Understanding the source of his problems, Bob felt much better. With minor adjustments to his approach, Bob eventually found working in Mexico to be a rewarding experience. He also found his employees to be very engaged in the success of the company and to be hard-working. Bob learned that as his staff got to more comfortable working with him and better understood his expectations, they could be flexible in their work style.

All cultures are in flux. Mexico exhibits diverse business and management styles, as does the United States. Described above is a more traditional style. Many employees and leaders in Mexico welcome and practice a low power distance approach, as Carlos does in having this frank conversation with Bob.

This story may or may not apply to the people you are working with. It will be up to you to determine how far this is helpful based on your workplace observations and experience.

Don Rutherford is a cross-cultural trainer and consultant. He can be reached at don@culture-connect.com.