Power dynamics set the tone at almost every level of human interaction. They influence your decision to speak up in meetings with supervisors, shape an organization’s approach to engaging its clients, and even guide the ways in which a government treats its citizens, responds to dissent, and enforces reforms.

We all internalize and externalize power relationships in unique ways; yet, researchers like Geert Hofstede believe that our individual differences are often perceived through shared assumptions about power passed down to us by the histories of our own societies. In his seminal work Culture Consequences, Hofstede introduces the concept of “power distance” to help quantify and measure how the powerful and the powerless interact.

What is power distance?

Power distance is the “extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.” Simply put, in a more stratified society (i.e. high power distance), people pay enormous attention to the relative standing of others and are comfortable with hierarchical and paternalistic social structures. By contrast, a society of low power distance de-emphasizes status and stresses informality, straightforwardness, and participation.

The map below shows the power distance index (PDI) of 60+ countries. For instance, Austria has a low power distance (11). Malaysia, on the other hand, has a much higher power distance (104).

Power Distance by Region

(source:ClearlyCultural)

Commenting on power distance in his best-selling book OutlierMalcolm Gladwell says there is not a right or wrong place to be on the PDI scale—nor is the scale an ironclad predictor of individual behaviors of members of a certain society. One of many things I believe the index can do is to help development communicators fine-tune their messaging and expectations while working with international communities.

How does power distance mediate development communication?

Framing development: the notion of development has long been contested. Much of the debate centers on the uneven power relationship between the developed and the developing worlds. If development means change for the better, questions arise about what is goodprogress, and who drives the development agenda.

Given the varying levels of acceptance of imbalanced power structures (e.g. authority, institutions), formalized development institutions conventionally funded by developed nations could experience different degrees of resistance or welcome from local communities in the developing world. In both cases, effective communication—especially power-conscious discourse—plays a key role in building a positive and trusting relationship between the institution and the locals.

Open participation: regarding the top-down and participatory models of development communication, there has been a clear endorsement of the latter in recent history. The participatory paradigm stresses the voice and identity of local communities and their participation at all levels. For instance, the World Bank Group holds consultations in various forms to incorporate views from civil society organizations, governments, private sector, and academia (a Cambodia example) in its decision-making processes. Yet, the fundamental principles of openness and inclusiveness can be undermined, if public hearings are organized in a way that disregards the effect of power distance. To be more specific, the presence of a high-ranking official at the meeting could silence an otherwise interactive discussion in some high power-distance countries.

Online communication: differences in power distance can even play out in the online world.Tian’s study found that, in parts of the world characterized by high power distance, corporate websites are significantly more likely to emphasize the organization’s ties with governments, feature its major accomplishments, and showcase visits by authorities. In the context of international development, this example demonstrates the need to address cultural characteristics of local communities even when communicating online. We may ask ourselves, on our country websites, are we unintentionally overshadowing the role of common citizens in development projects by highlighting technical experts and government collaboration? Will this approach leave some stakeholders feeling excluded in low power-distance regions?

Development communication is more than success stories and press releases, and I hope that we have moved past the mindset of seeing it as “development support communication” or “a sub-component of development sectors.” Communication, in its own right, is a major force for development, as it facilitates attitude and behavior changes. These changes cannot be pursued effectively or appropriately without understanding the multiplicity of power dynamics at local and global levels.

Published in collaboration with World Bank.

Author: Jing Guo is a member of the Public Opinion Research Group of the Global Practice Communications Department.

Image: People pass the Bank of England in the City of London January 16, 2014. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor