The way we perceive the world is constrained by culture, social mores, institutions, education, and neurobiology. In some cultures and businesses, there is a distinct power distance that separates and modifies social interactions. 1 Power distance is the degree to which powerful individuals in a country, culture, occupation, or an institution accept and indeed demand subordination, obedience, and differential respect. Institutions with high levels of power distance are characterized by bosses pulling rank, requiring subordinates to clear everything with the boss, and having excessive rules for interaction and task completion. In general, when power distance is high between superiors and their subordinates, there is an aura of authoritarianism and class distinction. This is in contrast to work environments where the power distance between superiors and subordinates is low. In this situation, superiors treat individuals as somewhat equal, giving subordinates’ important tasks, permitting failure, and giving credit where the credit is due.
It should be noted that the appropriate degree of power distance is contextual. There are some jobs where high levels of power distance are needed (e.g., the military, some construction jobs, and police work) and others where low levels of power distance are desirable (e.g., research and development, piloting a plane, and creative endeavors). Malcolm Gladwell described a situation where high levels of power distance between flight crew members contributed to the plane crashes of a Korean Airlines in the late 1990s. 2 Planes produced by Airbus and Boeing are supposed to be flown by two pilots without a significant power distance between them, where one pilot corrects the other when necessary. As a result of the large power distance between the pilots of Korean Airlines, the co-pilot would not correct mistakes made by the other pilot, which in turn led to the fatal mistakes and crashes. There has even been speculation that the Madoff debacle was the result of too much power distance between the Securities and Exchange Commission and Bernard Madoff. 3
It is important to reduce the power distance relationship within teams and at meetings when the objective is to encourage creativity and innovation. As noted earlier, having a mission, focusing on a single goal, encouraging one-on-one collaboration, encouraging risk taking, embracing failure, and having quiet time can all facilitate creativity. This can, of course, be very difficult to do because the power distance relationship is a somewhat durable, cultural, and institutional variable. Overcoming situations where the power distance relationship is high requires a dramatic approach, such as the Six Thinking Hats technique.