How To Find Your Place In The Workplace Hierarchy

Where is your place in the hierarchy at the new workplace abroad? Have a look at the power distance index of your target country first!
workplace hierarchy
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Mapping your new workplace is always a long process, and it is particularly so if your new job is in a new country. Finding the right note on which to speak to your colleagues and your leader, or your team if you are the leader, requires knowledge, good people skills, intuition, the right amount of training, and if you work across cultures, then a serious amount of cultural awareness, and knowledge about the norms and rules of the cultures involved as well. The distance between leaders and employees and the buildup of the workplace hierarchy differs around countries, and it is deeply affected by each culture’s views, and laws on the social hierarchy are deeply affected.

PDI – Power Distance Index

The Power Distance Index is one of Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, which are widely used in cross-cultural communication. By definition, the PDI measures the extent to which the less powerful members of organisations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This represents inequality (more versus less), but is defined from below, not from above. It suggests that a society’s level of inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders.

So it is clear how a society’s attitude toward power distribution directly affects the organization of the workplace hierarchy and interpersonal relationships, and this attitude is different in every culture. It has a say in leadership and management styles as well as in the behaviour of employees. Across different cultures, leaders’ attitudes vary from giving orders to asking their employees to do something. At the same time, employees attitudes vary from completely isolating themselves from their leader or even turning to them when they need help. For example, in some cultures, it is perfectly normal for an employee to ask their boss about the office cafeteria food, what they recommend to try at lunch, or how the coffee machine in the kitchen works, while in other cultures, this would be considered really rude and inappropriate. Just as well in some countries, it is only natural to joke around with your boss and tell them about your weekend activities, while this is unacceptable in other places.

The PDI Indicates What Workplace Hierarchy To Expect

The PDI of a particular country already indicates what you can expect there and what are the accepted attitudes towards hierarchy. Further educating yourself regarding a country’s attitude toward power and organisational hierarchy will help find your place at the new place. For example, countries with high PDI tend to be very strict regarding power distance, while the ones with low PDI have more “loose”, informal ways of organising.

Arab cultures, for example, have very high PDI’s, as people there tend to be very strict about respecting the ones with power and always keep their distance. In Austria, on the other hand, the PDI is really low, the belief in equality being much stronger.

In high PDI cultures the emotional distance is really wide, which also means that in these countries people in the workplace tend to be more task- rather than people- and relationship-oriented. Trying to bond on a personal note is considered disrespectful, and subordinates do not usually get involved in the decision making process at the workplace. In these cultures, it is highly unlikely that people will bond with their bosses over personal stories, jokes etc.

In low PDI countries, it is different, as people there tend to be more relationship-oriented rather than only focusing on the task, and teamwork is an important factor of what makes a good workplace. In these cultures, people are used to bonding over personal matters, and interpersonal relationships in the workplace are really important for them.

Of course, the picture is not so black-and-white. There are countries with really high PDI and very strict social norms, and others with much looser ones, but there are countries in between. So it is always a good idea to educate yourself on the country you are planning to move to, talk to people, and have some points of reference before your first day, either as a leader or employee.

Eszter Szűcs-Imre

Key Takeaways

  • The distance between leaders and employees differs around countries. It is deeply affected by each culture’s views on social hierarchy.
  • The Power Distance Index (PDI) is one of Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, which are widely used in cross-cultural communication. 
  • The PDI measures the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.
  • The PDI of a certain country indicates what attitudes towards hierarchy are accepted.
  • Countries with high PDI tend to be very strict when it comes to power distance, while the ones with low PDI have more „loose”, informal ways of organizing.
  • In high PDI cultures the emotional distance is really wide, in low PDI countries people tend to be more relationship-oriented. 
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