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Collectivism & Power distance

Leadership & Organization Development Journal
Cross-cultural leadership dynamics in collectivism and high power distance settings
John R. Schermerhorn, Michael Harris Bond,
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Cross-cultural leadership dynamics in collectivism
and high power distance settings
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John R. Schermerhorn Jr
College of Business, Ohio University, Athens, Ohio, USA
Michael Harris Bond
Department of Psychology, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, Hong Kong
and power distance are
among the dimensions of
national culture frequently
discussed in the leadership
literature and in executive
development programmes.
Examines cross-cultural
leadership implications of the
likely interaction of collectivism and high power distance. Includes a call for
more awareness of how collectivism and power distance
may together influence workplace behaviour. Suggests
that this awareness needs to
be incorporated in crosscultural leadership training
and research agendas.
Our complex global economy has dramatically increased the frequency with which
managers from one culture are called on to
lead work groups and teams composed of
members from different cultures. An important example is the expatriate manager working with host-country staff. Among the possible settings for such cross-cultural leadership
encounters, Asia – an area of the world wellrecognized for both its economic importance
and cultural uniqueness (Rohwer, 1995) – is a
significant case in point. This paper
addresses the leadership challenges that can
arise when expatriate managers come face-toface with the collectivism and high power
distance common in Asian cultures (Hofstede, 1980, 1984).
Vignette 1: A newly-arrived American expatriate manager is about to hold her first
meeting in Malaysia with local staff of her
firm’s subsidiary company. The meeting
agenda is to establish the group’s specific
work objectives for the coming months. She
plans first to offer her ideas based on home
office expectations. Then, after listening to
group discussion and receiving inputs, she
expects to reach clear agreement on action
plans, performance targets, and time lines.
Although somewhat anxious about this first
formal meeting with the group, she is also
confident. After all, she has read a fair
amount about Malaysia and attended firmsponsored pre-departure orientation on
Malaysian culture. She is enthusiastic and
wants to do well in her first international
Cross-cultural leadership and the
expected culture
Leadership & Organization
Development Journal
18/4 [1997] 187–193
© MCB University Press
[ISSN 0143-7739]
The prior scene, albeit fabricated, represents
a situation faced by most new expatriate
managers – leading an initial task-oriented
meeting of a work group or team composed of
members from one or more different cultures.
What may not be apparent in the example is
the potential for this expatriate manager to
be “surprised” when leadership difficulties
are encountered. Importantly, she has arrived
in Malaysia with a set of pre-existing notions
regarding the way local workers will behave
culturally. These form what might be called
the expected culture – that is, the Malaysian
culture that she expects to find based on prior
cultural training, personal anticipations, and
even suggestions from conversations with
The expected culture is a lay theory at best.
It should be carefully tested and refined in the
reality of the new work setting. But the very
fact that it exists at all can make such cultural “learning” difficult. Especially under
the stressful conditions often accompanying
a new international assignment (Adler, 1991),
the leader is likely to be more influenced by a
priori understandings, however inadequate
or incomplete, than by cultural realities. To
the extent that these cultural expectations
are flawed, the leader’s actions (coupled with
the responses they generate) may create additional problems of their own. This cycle of
action and reaction activated in the leaderfollower relationships will most likely confound an already complicated situation, and
make it even harder for the newcomer to
accomplish the all-important cultural learning.
This paper examines cross-cultural leadership challenges in specific respect to the cultural dimensions of collectivism and power
distance (Hofstede, 1980, 1984). Both dimensions are commonly used to describe and
examine cultural variations of significance to
managerial leadership (Adler, 1991). They are
also represented in alternative frameworks
for understanding cultural differences
(Schwartz, 1994; Triandis, 1988; Trompenaars,
1994). Using elements of cultural self-representation theory (Erez and Early, 1993) and
the role of language as a cultural vehicle
(Hofstede, 1984), along with a South-east Asia
example, the paper distinguishes between
“expected” and “manifest” cultures and calls
for more attention to the challenges of leaderfollower differences in collectivism and
power distance.
Organizations, collectivism, and
power distance
Hofstede’s (1980, 1984) 40-country study established the empirical foundations for two
dimensions of national culture formally specified as individualism-collectivism and power
[ 187 ]
John R. Schermerhorn Jr and
Michael Harris Bond
Cross-cultural leadership
dynamics in collectivism and
high power distance settings
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Leadership & Organization
Development Journal
18/4 [1997] 187–193
[ 188 ]
distance. Despite the availability of other
cultural frameworks (Schwartz, 1994;
Trompenaars, 1994) and criticisms (Yeh,
1989), this research has proved valuable both
in terms of research extensions (Chinese
Culture Connection, 1987) and in conceptual
overlap with emerging models (Smith et al.,
1995). Given the nature of organizations,
furthermore, the individualism-collectivism
and power distance formulations seem particularly relevant and enduring. Organizations
are complex social systems in which people
work both individually and in groups (Blau
and Scott, 1962; Likert, 1961), and are structured within authority and status hierarchies
(Etzioni, 1963).
Collectivism, according to Hofstede,
“stands for a preference for a tightly knit
social framework in which individuals can
expect their relatives, clan, or other in-group
to look after them, in exchange for unquestioning loyalty”; he contrasts this with individualism described as “…a preference for a
loosely knit social framework in a society in
which individuals are supposed to take care
of themselves and their immediate families
only” (1985, pp. 347-8). In respect to collectivism, Erez and Early (1993) note that the
general distinction is between an emphasis
on self-interest in individualistic cultures
and an emphasis on group interests in collectivist cultures. In specific reference to management and leadership dynamics, individualists can be expected to emphasize individual action and self-interest, while collectivists
act and view themselves more as group members (Singelis et al., 1995).
Power distance, in turn, is defined by Hofstede as “the extent to which the members of a
society accept that power in institutions and
organizations is distributed unequally” (1985,
p. 348). The construct tends to be identified in
particular with the willingness of the less
powerful members of a society to accept their
lower status and authority roles vis-à-vis the
more power powerful members (Adler, 1991).
Specific to the organization context, members
of high power distance cultures are more
likely to be accepting of, and comfortable
with, structured authority relationships than
are members of low power distance cultures.
Importantly, individualism-collectivism
and power distance may be discussed and
understood in an independent or linear fashion even though they are empirically related
(Bond, 1996; Hofstede, 1980, 1984, 1985). When
describing results of the original study from
which these cultural dimensions were specified, however, Hofstede states: “In a factor
analysis of country mean scores on 32 value
statements (variables) for 40 countries
(cases), I find three main factors: one
combining Power Distance with
Collectivism…” (1985, p. 348, emphasis
added)[1]. Indeed, the indices of individualism-collectivism and power distance are significantly correlated (–0.67) in his study, and a
graphical plot of these data shows that individualism is associated with lower power
distance while collectivism is associated with
high power distance (Hofstede, 1980, 1984).
Nonetheless, Hofstede went on to consider the
two dimensions separately, and justified the
decision on three grounds:
1 that the statistical correlation disappears
when the analysis is controlled for countries’ economic wealth;
2 that the two dimensions are conceptually
3 that even though most collectivist cultures
are also high in power distance, this is not
always the case, as for example France or
Costa Rica (1984, 1985).
Hofstede’s decision to separate individualism-collectivism and power distance has
attracted scrutiny (Bond, 1996; Erez and
Early, 1993). Bond, in particular, notes that
other theorists (e.g. Triandis et al., 1988) associate collectivism with hierarchy, and further
argues that “…had Hofstede not split Power
Distance and Individualism, it might have
reduced the tendency to reify these
constructs as separate and have simplified
our search for external correlates of the unified concept” (1994, p. 13). Support for his
view that the concepts “represent one empirical reality” is found in Bond’s (1996) empirical comparison of data from three different
data samples: Chinese Culture Connection
(1987), Hofstede (1980) and Schwartz (1994).
This analysis identified a single factor that
included both individualism (0.86) and power
distance (–0.76), and led Bond to suggest that
his results “…recommend themselves to our
consideration” (1996, p. 220). In the spirit of
this latter recommendation, the implications
for cross-cultural leadership of the likely
interaction of collectivism and high power
distance as dimensions of national cultures
deserve consideration.
Leadership dynamics and the
manifest culture
Let us return to the South-east Asian setting
of our earlier example. Although Malaysian
society is a multi-cultural mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and other subcultures, there is
general agreement that Malaysian workers
share certain common but distinctive workplace values (Abdullah, 1992a, 1996). Hofstede
(1991) describes Malaysian culture as relatively high in collectivism and very high in
John R. Schermerhorn Jr and
Michael Harris Bond
Cross-cultural leadership
dynamics in collectivism and
high power distance settings
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Leadership & Organization
Development Journal
18/4 [1997] 187–193
power distance. Abdullah (1992a, 1992b, 1996)
supports this view, noting that Malaysian
workers are group oriented, respect elders
and hierarchy, emphasize loyalty and consensus, and are concerned with harmony in
Assuming that such characteristics were
discussed in the expatriate manager’s predeparture cultural orientation programme,
they would logically become part of the
expected Malaysian culture – one in which
workers behaved in group-oriented collectivist fashion on the one hand and in a
respectful high power distance fashion on the
other. As that manager prepared for the first
meeting, therefore, it is understandable that
her actions would be planned in anticipation
that the Malaysians would respect her position and actively work together as a group to
develop the desired action priorities, performance targets, and time lines.
Vignette 2: When the manager presented her
ideas, home-office viewpoints, and specific
requests in the staff meeting, the Malaysian
workers did not actively participate in
group discussion as she had expected.
Instead, she faced a visibly attentive but
largely silent group. When eventually one
staff member, whom the others referred to
as tuan haji, congratulated her on the ideas,
the others smiled and nodded in quiet agreement. Not much more was said, despite the
manager’s active attempts to solicit input.
The meeting soon ended. With obvious relief
and pleasure, the Malaysians smiled and
Figure 1
When individualist-moderate power distance leader meets collectivist-high
power distance followers
The expected culture
power distance
Also expects
To be
High power
To be
Team oriented
The manifest culture
and moderate
power distance
Collectivist and
high power
With tendencies toward
talked avidly while hosting a post-meeting
“tea party” for their new manager.
The manifest culture
Although the manager in this case may take
modest pleasure at the apparent agreement
expressed in the meeting, she should be cautious. In fact, the more willing she is to reflect
seriously on what transpired, the less satisfied she should become. Questions should be
asked… and answered: Why didn’t anyone say
very much? Does this mean my ideas have
been accepted? Is everyone ready now to
implement the plans and meet the targets and
time lines? What really went on at this meeting?
The American expatriate manager was
prepared to find collectivism in the behaviour
of the Malaysian work team and also to find
its members acting with respect for authority
in supervisor-subordinate relationships.
Consistent with her “linear” understanding
of the expected culture, she anticipated that
the meeting would unfold along the lines
depicted in the top part of Figure 1. What she
experienced – described in the bottom of the
figure – was something different. The manifest culture – the one actually enacted in a
situation – reflected the influences of collectivism plus power distance in Malaysian
culture. The work group responded with
public deference, conformity, and politeness.
No disagreement was publically expressed.
What this meant in terms of true commitment and full contribution of ideas and viewpoints was, however, much less clear.
In this situation, and more generally elsewhere, the expected culture and manifest
cultures may share some common features.
But to any extent that the overlap between the
two is incomplete, leadership problems may
be anticipated. Moreover, the overlap is likely
to be less when the expected culture exists as
a neat and “list-based” model that fails to
encompass adequately the interconnections
among multiple cultural aspects. The
expected Malaysian culture of the expatriate
manager, for example, probably exists as a set
of “free- standing” stereotypes representing
linear images. These images act much as
heuristics in decision making (see Bazerman,
1994) to predispose her towards behaviours
that are erroneous (owing to inadequate or
incomplete accommodation of the local culture) at the same time that they may seem
quite comfortable (owing to acting consistently with one’s cultural expectations).
When the perceived comfort causes insufficient attention to actual outcomes resulting
from leadership behaviour, opportunities for
experience-based cultural learning are
reduced. Rather than relating dynamically to
[ 189 ]
John R. Schermerhorn Jr and
Michael Harris Bond
Cross-cultural leadership
dynamics in collectivism and
high power distance settings
Leadership & Organization
Development Journal
18/4 [1997] 187–193
the realities of the alternative culture – and
actively learning from experience – the manager passively accepts perceptual constraints
set by the expected culture (Snyder, 1981).
Instead of the leader’s interactions becoming
increasingly successful and functional
thanks to cultural learning, they may become
increasingly problematical and
Complications of language and
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In both the case vignette and the general
situation it represents, the additional complications of language and communication must
also be recognized. It is common to view culture as a shared meaning system (Schweder
and Levine, 1984) or collective mental programming (Hofstede, 1980). Members of a
culture will share certain mindsets that
cause them to interpret situations and events
in generally similar ways, while persons from
other cultures and mindsets are likely to
interpret them differently (Erez and Early,
1993). Culture in this sense is a powerful force
that shapes and influences the cognitions of
people. In the terms of cultural self-representation theory, it forms a shared knowledge
structure capable of reducing the variability
of individual responses (Erez and Early, 1993).
In this way culture contributes to a cognitive
framework and behavioural repertoire that
members of the culture will use to both interpret and respond to situations. As Adler
(1991) notes, the subconscious influence of
these internalized norms and expectations
may be the source of cross-cultural misinterpretations.
Language is an important mediator of culture (Adler et al., 1986). It helps to maintain
the culture and serves as the vehicle for the
creation of shared knowledge structures. But
the terms and symbols of a language are not
neutral; they are value-laden and culturally
tied (Hofstede, 1980). When such terms and
symbols are used across cultures, perceptions
and communications may be confounded as
misinterpretations occur (Smith and Bond,
1994, Ch. 9). This is why cross-cultural
research methodologists recommend back
translation of all research instruments used
across linguistic boundaries (Brislin et al.,
Referring again to the case in point, expectations regarding Malaysian culture have
been programmed into the expatriate manager’s mind based on the English-language
terms “collectivism” and “power distance”.
These English words carry cultural connotations and, in a sense, can compromise her
leadership effectiveness because of their
innate influences on perceptions and
[ 190 ]
behaviours. An individualist’s view of collectivism – that is, the individualist’s stereotypes
of collectivist cultures – for example, will be
structured within the confines of meanings
found in the individualistic culture. This may
not, and probably will not, capture the full
reality of the ultimate “collectivism” as
enacted in its home culture.
The significance of English in particular as
a medium of culture and a foundation for
meaning takes on even more generalizable
importance because cultures typically
described as highly individualistic are also
English speaking – notably those of the USA,
Canada, and the UK (Erez and Early, 1993).
Individualism and the English language, to
some extent at least, appear to go hand-inhand. With this pairing may also travel
inevitable tendencies towards cross-cultural
The interconnections among language,
communication, and culture are subject to
other confounding influences in settings like
Malaysia where English is commonly spoken
as a second language. Schermerhorn (1990)
warns about the dangers of using English as a
cross-cultural research medium with bilingual subjects. Even though it is easy to do so
and subjects may appear to understand everything, he shows that the influences of culture
may still confound research results. Linguistic differences between native and non-native
speakers of any language, including English,
may complicate cross-cultural communication in work and social situations. In the case
of the American expatriate manager, she may
not (especially at first) “speak” English in a
way that is accurately “heard” by
Malaysians; accent, linguistic nuance, and
colloquialisms may interfere with communication effectiveness. She, in turn, may not
(especially at first) accurately “hear” the
spoken English used by the Malaysians in
conversing with her. The expatriate manager
uses her English, with its unique cultural
underpinnings – individualist with low-moderate power distance; the Malaysians use
their English, influenced by a very different
culture – collectivist with high power distance. Because both parties are ostensibly
speaking the “same” language, each assumes
the other understands what they are saying.
Quite possibly, neither of them will try adequately to interpret systematically the cultural contexts and meaning systems within
which their respective English words and
phrases are embedded (Smith and Bond, 1994,
Ch. 9).
John R. Schermerhorn Jr and
Michael Harris Bond
Cross-cultural leadership
dynamics in collectivism and
high power distance settings
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Leadership & Organization
Development Journal
18/4 [1997] 187–193
Directions in cross-cultural
leadership understanding
The American expatriate manager in our
example has crossed cultural borders with a
leadership tendency anchored in an individualist with low-moderate power distance
American culture (Hofstede, 1980). She also
crossed borders with leadership predispositions influenced by meaning systems developed and articulated within the linguistic
confines of the English language. What she
expected to find in the Malaysian culture,
importantly, turned out to be somewhat different from what actually materialized. An
important question in this and all similar
cases becomes: how long will it take the
leader to recognize these differences between
expectations and reality, reorient her perceptions, and pursue action strategies that are
best suited to the situation at hand?
Vertical collectivism
Even though well intentioned in preparing
for her new assignment, the expatriate’s
linear model of the expected culture proved
inadequate as a leadership foundation. The
individualist expatriate expected group work
in a collectivist culture to involve active interaction and discussion of issues as everyone
worked towards agreement on a final set of
outcomes. In collectivist plus high power
distance Malaysia, however, actual group
process is more likely to proceed with subdued interaction, a concern for expressed
harmony, and search for public consensus
aligned with the apparent wishes of an
authority figure. Singelis et al. (1995) refer to
this combination of collectivism and high
power distance as vertical collectivism. They
describe it as a culture within which one
perceives the self as part of a group while
being accepting of power/status inequalities
within the group. Although Abdullah (1992a,
1992b, 1996), a cultural insider, points out that
tendencies towards conformity, public consensus, and deference to authority are to be
expected in the Malaysian culture, the full
operational implications of these tendencies
may not be fully anticipated. An interview
with Asma Abdullah concerning her intercultural training experiences in Malaysia is
reported by Schermerhorn (1994).
Given that members of collectivist cultures
tend to display loyalty to their in-groups,
respect authority and age, and conform to the
wishes of a paternalistic leader, the resulting
group dynamics – as suggested in the bottom
part of Figure 1 – may take certain directions
(see also Abdullah, 1996). These include
reaching premature agreement (Harvey,
1974), suffering from groupthink (Janis, 1982),
and perhaps escalating commitments to previously chosen courses of action (Staw, 1981).
The extent to which such dynamics operate
in collectivist-high power distance (vertical
collectivism) groups, how they affect relationships with more individualistic and lowmoderate power distance groups, and their
leadership implications in various work
settings, are among the research directions
that can be pursued to the ultimate benefit of
those who practise cross-cultural leadership
(see Singelis et al., 1995; Smith and Noakes,
1995; Smith et al., 1995).
Leader-follower interactions
In order to understand cross-cultural leadership situations better, the nature and consequences of emergent leader-follower “interactions” must be fully addressed. This includes
being willing to examine more completely the
action tendencies of individualistic/lowmoderate power distance leaders interacting
with collectivist/high power distance followers. Like a drama that unfolds scene by scene,
such cultures will meet – or “clash” – in a
series of leader-follower episodes with specific and successive iterations of action and
reaction. In this dynamic and ever-emerging
setting, the results of one episode spill over to
affect subsequent ones (Smith and Bond, 1994,
Ch. 9). These episodic “dramas” in crosscultural leader-follower interactions must be
better understood; they deserve significant
attention from researchers and trainers alike
(Brislin et al., 1986). Questions need to be
asked and answered regarding how the
episodes develop, how they relate to possible
cognitive modifications in pre-existing cultural mindscapes, and what eventually happens in respect to leader-follower relationships and outcomes. The notions of cultural
representation theory (Erez and Early, 1993)
and psychological culture (Hofstede et al.,
1993) may both apply here. Sensitivity to how
language and subconscious meanings influence what members of one culture (e.g. individualist) expect to find, and how they eventually behave, when they deal with members
of another culture (e.g. collectivist) will certainly be necessary.
Cross-cultural learning
The ideal situation for leadership in the
cross-cultural workplace is for everyone
involved – leader and followers alike – to be
well prepared for what they find, and to learn
quickly from experience. In practice, the
complex nature of culture makes this exceedingly difficult to accomplish. What can and
must be done, though, is for educators and
trainers to prepare leaders for cross-cultural
[ 191 ]
John R. Schermerhorn Jr and
Michael Harris Bond
Cross-cultural leadership
dynamics in collectivism and
high power distance settings
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Leadership & Organization
Development Journal
18/4 [1997] 187–193
work in a realistic way. They must be taught
to recognize and understand the limitations
of “expected culture”, and to respect the need
to become agile and avid learners of the
“manifest culture”. Importantly, they must be
made ready to examine carefully, and to learn
from, cross-cultural leadership situations at
the same time as they are participating in
Here again, the special case where representatives of individualist/low-moderate
power distance and collectivist/high power
distance cultures meet in leadership situations adds special challenges. When working
with collectivist and high power distance
followers, individualist and moderate power
distance leaders must understand that feedback on their effectiveness will be more
muted and indirect than they have been culturally conditioned to expect (Gudykunst and
Ting-Toomey, 1988). They must also be aware
of how their own culture and language can
influence their expectations of other cultures.
They must further understand that this background can predispose them to act in potentially dysfunctional ways.
While leadership training and development
initiatives can never be perfect in “teaching”
about alternative cultures, models that
describe cultures in linear terms can and
should be carefully screened. Ideally, they
should be reconstructed as “constellations”
with intricacies made meaningful to specific
situations. They should also be accompanied
by well-identified personal cultural anchor
points that help to clarify action predispositions. All of these are necessary to prepare
the cross-cultural leader adequately for active
cultural learning (Bond, 1992).
The real world of cultures is one of networks
and dynamic forces where all aspects interrelate and interact. At the very least, and especially given the importance to the global economy of the cultures found in many Asian
nations, it is important that leadership
research and development programmes
address the implications of the collectivism
and power distance interaction. Since the
cultures of the world are more complicated
than these two dimensions alone suggest
(Chinese Culture Connection, 1987; Hofstede,
1980; Schwartz, 1994; Trompenaars, 1994), the
various points made in this paper need to be
explored and extended into other cultural
dimensions. In all cases, leadership trainers
and developers must replace simplified
“lists” with multi-dimensional “collages”
that display cultures in a more representative
[ 192 ]
manner. Although this paper offers just one
rudimentary case, as an illustrative starting
point, it will, it is hoped, contribute to future
inquiries into the challenges of cross-cultural
leadership effectiveness in our increasingly
complex global economy.
Vignette 3: Some time after the first staff
meeting, the American expatriate attended
a dinner party with other expatriates. She
mentioned her experience to someone who
had been “in-country” for quite some time.
He said that what happened was quite natural; it was “to be expected”. He also advised
her to meet separately with pak eik to discuss her work plans and ideas; and he
encouraged her to ask for his views and
those of the other team members. He predicted that tuan haji would informally discuss everything with the others, check back
with her as necessary, and bring the group
to agreement before the next formal meeting. Any recommendations she would put
forth at the meeting would most likely meet
her needs as well as theirs.
1 Although our specific interest here is with the
individualism-collectivism and power distance
interaction, we recognize that the complete
Hofstede framework includes the dimensions
of uncertainty avoidance, masculinity-femininity, and short term-long term orientation
(Hofstede, 1991; Hofstede and Bond, 1988).
Interactions among all dimensions are important to consider, as are interactions among
dimensions found in other cultural frameworks, such as those suggested by Schwartz
(1994) and Trompenaars (1994).
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John R. Schermerhorn Jr and
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dynamics in collectivism and
high power distance settings
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