Power Distance – Quantified
In an article that I came across recently, Daniel Goleman analyses in a revealing way the interplay between corporate hierarchy and power dynamics.
He begins by asking the reader to contemplate email response times. He says, “Think of two people who work in your organization: one a level or two below you, and the other a level above. Now imagine getting an email from each of them. Ask yourself how long it would take you to answer those emails. Chances are the one from above you respond to right away. And the one from below you are likely to answer when you can get around to it.”
On reading this, I recognized this very pattern in how I, myself, responded to the hundreds of emails that I receive at work. If my boss wrote me an email, it meant that she most likely needed a bit of information right away—consequently, I would leap into action and find what she had requested. If, on the other hand, I got an email from someone under me, or from an equal with whom I have numerous collaborative contacts, I would let the matter slide for a while, before eventually answering the missive. (Underlying this is the tacit assumption that my boss is in charge of doing important things, and that her time is valuable. In Corporate America, as in the Army, this is the prevailing attitude, although it would be an exaggeration to say that everyone shared this attitude. Indeed, when a person in authority is performing badly, and is recognized to be wasting everyone’s time, email response times to that person lengthen. When underlings stop responding to emails completely, then the boss is on the way out!)
There is nothing particularly startling in what I have said so far. Of course, one jumps to attention when the boss calls or writes, and keeps underlings waiting. What is interesting, however, is the close inverse correlation between email response times and power distance. Goleman goes on to say that researchers at Columbia have actually formulated an algorithm for automatically laying bare the social hierarchy within a company simply by analyzing the response times to electronic communications between various members.
After the shameful collapse of Enron Corporation, the internal emails became available to the researchers. Simply by applying their algorithm to response times to emails, ignoring the contents of the emails completely, they were able to re-construct the organizational chart of the firm, almost perfectly. The greater the power distance, faster were the response times—the contents of the emails did not come into play. That such a re-construction is possible, points to a pathological company culture, suggests Goleman. In a healthier company the merit of the emails would have influenced response times—not merely the position of the sender in the organizational chart. The re-construction would fall well short of perfection—it would be ‘noisy.’
In a company such as Enron was, all the attention flows in the same direction within the power structure. Goleman believes this isolates the leaders from the functions of the company, ossifies the practices of the company, and endangers the company by rendering it incapable of quickly responding to a crisis. The empathy felt by a manager, for those below, dwindles as the power distance widens. A leader can quickly get out of touch, and forsake all pathways through which inspiration and motivation can be channeled. Simultaneously, the leader will cease to receive feedback from the underlings, and will be cossetted in a cocoon of silence. He will be unaware of how the company is functioning, and how it is being perceived.
Goleman argues that companies work efficiently, and respond to the vicissitudes that they encounter, if the management structure is dominated by high-contact leaders—leaders who walk the floor, get to know the employees on the ground, and who create an atmosphere where people feel safe enough to be candid.
I, myself, have been fortunate to work for great leaders, who had an abundance of empathy, humility, and creativity. They were thinkers and dreamers who nevertheless had their feet firmly planted on the ground. They never forgot that they were managing other human beings, and kept our aspirations in mind, even as they attended to the abstract entity, which was the company. We in turn were motivated to follow them into the unknown, and worked diligently to propel both the company and ourselves into a better future.
The Signs of a Leader’s Empathy Deficit Disorder http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20131125023629-117825785-the-signs-of-a-leader-s-empathy-deficit-disorder?trk=mp-details-rc
Rowe, R., Creamer, G., Hershkop, S., & Stolfo, S. J. (2007, August). Automated social hierarchy detection through email network analysis. In Proceedings of the 9th WebKDD and 1st SNA-KDD 2007 workshop on Web mining and social network analysis (pp. 109-117). ACM.