Power distance dilemma: How to operate in global, diverse and virtual teams

The benefits of Diversity can be many but hoping that people will understand how you behave and understanding how they behave is not one of them

David Rigby
David Rigby
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This week I have been preparing a training course entitled How to Operate in Global, Diverse and Virtual Teams for a client in Kuwait. And it starts with two dilemmas

• I have never been to Kuwait
• I have no idea about the ethic/racial mix of the delegates.

Searching the internet there is immense confusion between virtual and global in respect of teams so I have chosen to look at it this way.

• A Global Team is a team where the team members are physically located in different parts of the world.
• A Virtual Team is a team in which the members belong to that team but could also belong to many others – that is an individual could be in many teams at the same time and all the members of one team could be in the same location.

Is having team members in different buildings in the same town a Virtual Team? If they communicate through technology then apparently it is. If two people in the same room always communicate on the phone, by text and email and never speak face to face they too could be operating in a virtual team.

So, that’s cleared up Global and Virtual!

Diversity is about many things but particularly ethnicity, race and religion.

Ethnicity vs Race? An Indian trainer put it like this: “ethnicity is based on cultural tradition while race is based mainly on biological traits”. So Race is what you look like and Ethnicity is how you brought up. The UAE is one of the most diverse is terms of Ethnicity and Race.

In the 1970s Geert Hofstede from IBM undertook very extensive research into the characteristics of people in various countries and one of those characteristics is ‘Power Distance’.

Power Distance expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people. People in societies exhibiting a large degree of power distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low power distance, people strive to equalise the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.

This means that in some societies only the powerful make decisions and the less powerful expect the powerful to make the decisions – so don’t make decisions themselves. Other societies look to devolve power as it is more efficient so everyone makes decisions.

Hofstede’s assessment of the UAE is that in the UAE the less powerful members of society accept and expect power to be distributed unequally. But that only applies to the Emiratis In the workplace in UAE every combination of diversity is here and with every combination of the Power Diversity Spectrum. And what happens? Research has shown that, like all the other Hofstede categories, with Power Diversity people behave according to where they were born or hoe their parents behave, i.e. their ethnicity. We have all the challenges of Virtual/Global/Diverse in the same room.

The Brits and Americans expect to have decision making authority and expect to challenge decisions delivered from on high. The problem arises when they expect others to behave the same. They may send an email directly to the junior members of the team from a different ethnic group, say Chinese, without bothering the boss (as they didn’t want to disturb him).

They are surprised when they get no answer. Chinese ‘Power Diversity’ requires that the boss received the email and sends the email to the juniors (signalling approval), collates the answers and responds to the Brits. Anything else is undermining his authority.

This is the simple dilemma! - So what happens when you get the Chinese being managed by the English and vice-versa.
This is one of the reasons why Indians recruit teams of Indians, the Lebanese recruit only Lebanese. They know that the team members will behave according to their norms.

The benefits of Diversity can be many but hoping that people will understand how you behave and understanding how they behave is not one of them.

Well I know that the Power Distance Index of the Kuwaiti nationals is similar to that of the Emirati nationals. It will be interesting to see the ethnic/racial make-up of the delegates. The Power Diversity debate will be very interesting!

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