Managing Worldwide - Power Distances: May 10th
I have been reading a superb book on cross-cultural management entitled Management Worldwide by David Hickson and Derek Pugh. In the book they talk about power distance. High power distance countries have a large gulf between superiors and subordinates with regards to authority and status; the superiors are respected for their position, and are rarely questioned about their decisions. Low power distance countries, on the other hand, have a large measure of equality between superiors and subordinates. Subordinates expect to be involved in decision making and can be expected to question the decisions of their leaders. High power distance countries include Mexico (81), India (77), Singapore (74), and Hong Kong (68). Low power countries include USA (40), Sweden (31), Ireland (28), and Israel (28).
In India, a person’s time is valued based on power. A high-power individual must never be kept waiting. In India, a high-power individual can and will demonstrate their power by keeping a lower power individual waiting. As an example, one of my engineers was kept waiting for 2 hours to meet with his counterpart in one of our partner companies. His counterpart wanted to impress upon my engineer, the value of his time. Similarly, a recruiter who wanted to moderate a candidate’s arrogance simply kept the candidate waiting for three hours, and then asked the candidate to come back the next day. Government clerks and officials, who have very little real power, exercise what power they have by making you wait.
As a consequence of this, when I travel in India, I always come to the airport early. Indian Airlines, the governmental airline, has all the classic behaviors of high power distance. You the customer are on the lowest end of the power curve. The captain of the plane and the airport duty manager are on the highest end of the curve. In between are a host of players, security clerks, check-in clerks, gate attendants, baggage clerks, etc., each of whom you do not want to upset, lest they decide to show you how much bureaucratic power they really do have.
This evening Satish, C.N. Kumar, and myself were going to take an Indian Airline flight from Bangalore to Hyderabad. We got to the airport at 6 and then waited to check-in. In a classic case of Murphy’s Law (the circuit will blow to protect the fuse) the power’s battery backup UPS (uninterruptible power supply) to the reservation terminals had been interrupted, although the main power for fans and lights were continuing to work. The reservation system was down, so we waited...and waited...and waited... After about forty-five minutes, the power came back on, and we could check-in for the 7:10 flight; which was now obviously going to be delayed.
The three of us got through security, identified our luggage, and found some chairs in the least mosquito-infested section of the terminal and we waited for the boarding call. Around 7:30 we still hadn’t heard the call, so Satish got up and went to the gate. "Yar, you’re late - hurry!" We hadn’t heard the call on the speaker (none was given, it turns out), but everyone else had gotten on board. We got to the stairs on the plane and - whoops! - The stair guard wouldn’t let us on the plane because we were late by 10 minutes.
It is hard to describe the rhythm of an Indian "customer" arguing with and Indian clerk or official. Typically voices are immediately raised, and arguments are delivered at frantic rates. The customer’s vain attempts at logic are met with equally useless quoting of arbitrary rules. The approach usually results in failure since the real issue is power. Here the gate attendant kept arguing that we had intentionally delayed the other passengers, and that was why he wouldn’t let us on the plane. Satish and CN argued the case (luggage checked in, boarding pass, lack of the page, etc) that we were simply not aware of the plane being boarded. Our baggage had to be identified and taken off the plane. Another attempt at rule skullduggery followed. If they couldn’t find and return our luggage, we had to be allowed to board, since unaccompanied baggage was a major security hazard. Alas the guerrillas in the plane found our luggage, providing the stair attendant a satisfactory demonstration of his power.
Arguing with an older official seldom works I believe, although you might succeed with a younger clerk. A more successful approach might have been to try fawning to his power "Uncle, we’re so sorry, we didn’t hear the page, uncle you have the authority to let us on, we know you are able to help us".
But we had failed. So, the next stop was the airport chief of police, where we were dressed down for abuse of fellow passengers, and told to sign our names in some books. Then a nice long session of waiting in the duty manager’s office commenced. This was especially pleasant, since the duty manager’s office was next to a drain and was thick with mosquitos. We stood and waited and waited, and waited. The duty manager gave us the usual "attitude". But the wheel turns when you least expect it, and we got to see the power curve inversed!
A defense minister (and Member of Parliament) had been denied a confirmed ticket. Now the hound had become the fox, and wherever the duty manager went, the MLAs entourage shouting abuse and demands followed him. Eventually the duty manager gave the minister a ticket, held the plane an extra hour, and kicked off an existing passenger. His final act of humiliation was to put the triumphant minister on board.
Imagine having to deal with the duty manager after he had finished with this problem. His ego had been severely hurt, and to heal the wounds, he had to kick some butt. Now was the appropriate time to ask all three of us to bend over. After another hour, severely ingratiating behavior, and several mosquito bites, the duty manager finally converted our tickets to the next morning flight. We had arrived at 6, and left at 10:30 in the evening.
Oddly enough it was a stress-free evening. As the saying goes, "Lord give me the courage to change the things I can, the patience to accept the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference". I had no ability to change anything — all I could do was act polite, and wait.