Cultural differences – how power distance in the workplace influences everyday situations

As our world shifts to a global village, the benefits of cultural diversity in the workforce have been largely proven. However, in order for multiculturalism in the workplace to be the fantastic asset it has the potential to be, some degree of intercultural awareness is required for all involved.

Indeed, misunderstandings or tensions can arise between team members in an intercultural working environment. We’re not necessarily talking about huge diplomatic incidents, or fights between two groups of different nationalities. The implications of multiculturalism are much more subtle and appear in everyday situations.


Formal or familiar?

Let’s for example look at one of the most visible differences there is, often noticed in a work environment – the approach to hierarchy. In a situation where team members have different approaches to hierarchy, their views on taking initiatives, making decisions, voicing disagreements, might be very different, and potentially complicating day to day operations.

Some might expect every member of a team to take part in a meeting and be an active part of the decision process, whilst others might be more comfortable with a more top down management style and find being systematically consulted confusing, or even worst, completely paralysing.

Indeed, cultures such as the Chinese or the Russian, value high hierarchy, a certain formality when dealing with more senior individuals. Leading in that manner would mean being considered a good and qualified leader.

Other cultures, such as Danish or Dutch, typically tend to prefer an egalitarian approach, so called lower “power distance”. This means more equality between people regardless of status or seniority. A good leader would be a person who for example consults everyone before making a decision, and who doesn’t point out her/his position in the hierarchy.


How do power distance differences show in teamwork?

Let’s now imagine a team constituted of both – Chinese and Dutch employees. We can all picture the complexities of having to navigate team meetings.

Being ask by their managers for an opinion on a certain topic, or about a decision to be made, employees used to a more egalitarian approach might naturally contribute, participate and debate. Employees from China on the other hand, might have more difficulties contradicting or questioning their manager openly at a forum, or giving feedback without directly being asked to speak up. The communication could, in that case, be happening on a more non-verbal level, or through the use of silence. To them, contradicting the manager may seem disrespectful and unnecessary, whilst for the Dutch employees of the team, appearing reluctant to speak in a meeting or act without the boss’s okay might be mistaken for lack of his/her preparation or worse – a sign of incompetence.

Without an awareness of cultural differences, these different behaviors may be completely misunderstood or misinterpreted.


Intercultural awareness as a solution

It is important that coworkers get along and respect each other. Not only for a company’s productivity, but also for its employees well being. It is also crucial for a manager to understand and be understood by his/her team members.Tensions, resentments and issues caused by cultural differences are avoidable, and raising intercultural awareness is one of the keys.