How Power Distance Agreement Improves Performance in the Workplace

Research in I-O psychology suggests that, when leaders and their employees share similar attitudes about how work should be done, it creates positive outcomes in the workplace.

A recent study by Cole, Carter, and Zhang (2013) has found that agreement on the appropriate amount of power distance– the disparity in control between employees and their supervisors– can play an especially significant role in workplace harmony, leading to improved performance.

When people expect leaders to assume complete authority and make all decisions, the company’s culture is said to be high on the power distance index. When those leaders are expected to make decisions democratically, using employee input, and employees are assumed to be on equal footing, the culture is said to be low on the power distance index.

As part of the study, researchers examined the extent to which leaders and their employees agreed on power distance expectations. When this agreement was higher, two positive outcomes were usually found: Team performance improved, as did organizational citizen behaviors (when employees go beyond their formal job descriptions to benefit the organization).

But why did this happen? The authors found that, when leaders and employees had similar expectations regarding power distance, there was agreement as to who should be making the decisions. For example, when high power distance was expected, all parties agreed that the leader should be making decisions unilaterally.

This type of agreement leads to a perception of procedural justice, or the feeling that employees are being treated fairly. In our example, the employees do not expect to make decisions, and perceive it as fair when they are not asked to do so. Procedural justice was ultimately associated with higher job performance and organizational citizenship behaviors.

The authors concluded that organizations should find ways to discover the power distance expectations of leaders and their employees. When agreement is low, the organization can then take steps to help correct the mismatch and train leaders to better suit their followers. Ultimately, this knowledge of team members’ preferences can be an important step towards improving overall team performance.