|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 persons 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 candidates
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 Murphys Law (the circuit will blow to
protect the fuse) the powers 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 hadnt heard the call, so
Satish got up and went to the gate. "Yar, youre late - hurry!" We
hadnt 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 wouldnt 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 customers 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
wouldnt 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 couldnt 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, were so sorry, we didnt 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 managers office
commenced. This was especially pleasant, since the duty managers 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
|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 cant change, and the wisdom to know the difference". I had no
ability to change anything all I could do was act polite, and wait.