Have you ever hesitated to tell your boss that they’re wrong? Have you thought twice about speaking your mind, fearing that the captain knows better? Then you might be experiencing a steep power distance in your workplace.
What is power distance?
he degree of variance or steepness in the distribution of power and authority within an organisation or work environment is referred to as the power gradient, or distance. Dr. Geert Hofstede, a psychologist, published his cultural dimensions model at the end of the 1970s, based on 10 years of research in which he investigated power distance dynamics in several nations. It is now well recognised across the globe as a standard for understanding cultural differences.
Hofstede’s model investigated power distance in various nations, but power distance also has an impact on how an organisation performs.
The presence of a steep power distance in the workplace, particularly onboard a ship, can have detrimental effects on safety, teamwork, mental health, reporting of abuse and harassment, and innovation.
It is essential for leaders to recognise and address power distance dynamics in order to create a work environment that promotes safety, collaboration, and employee well-being.
How does power distance affect the workplace?
#1: Preventing the worst
Having a healthy power distance is especially important in high-risk working environments, such as those onboard a ship. Crew members not being able to express their minds can jeopardise their safety and physical integrity.
For example, if a junior crew member feels belittled or afraid to speak their minds, a potential hazard that they may have noticed will probably not be communicated to the senior officers, which can result in dire consequences.
This is also known as the Malcolm Gladwell hypothesis. Using aviation as an example, Gladwell has argued that many accidents are avoidable and are actually caused by a combination of an error by the Captain and a reluctance on the behalf of the co-pilot to correct the captain’s error. Or it might be an error in the flight control tower and if the pilots in the cockpit are from a low power distance culture, they might not be assertive enough in telling the control tower what they need.
Case study: How does the hypothesis apply to shipping?
Gladwell may have developed his hypothesis based on aviation, but this is also very true for the maritime industry. Using this CHRIP anonymous report as a case study, we can see why:
The Confidential Human Factors Incident Reporting Programme (CHIRP) is a platform that provides a totally independent and confidential reporting system. In a reported incident, a crewmate was jolted awake by his second officer, who had just anchored and completed his watch. He had the last navigation watch for arrival around 2 a.m., so the captain arrived early and took over while the second officer and lookout went to drop anchor.
A guest and a bodyguard arrived on the bridge shortly after the captain. The captain was distracted during the handover because the guest stood at the helm.
The captain had no idea they were so close to the bay. The second officer noticed that the boat was entering the bay too quickly, but he didn’t want to bother the captain, who was talking to the guest. He eventually warned him as the boat sped into the bay at 14 knots, narrowly missing several anchored sailing boats, and ran aground.
How power distance led to this grounding:
Pointing out an error is especially difficult in front of an ‘audience’, particularly if they are also perceived as ‘senior’. The fear of speaking up in this case turned out to bear serious consequences. This indecision left nobody taking responsibility for the vessel’s navigation.
#2: Feeling part of a team
Furthermore, being afraid of the seniors can kill all endeavours of forming a team onboard and shape an environment where crew members are divided into more and less important and nowledgeable members.
A steep power gradient can also lead to seafarers being unable to express their feelings and communicate their problems, which can further burden their mental health state and their feeling of isolation.
This feeling of isolation can impact their overall job satisfaction and sense of belonging within the team. It is important for senior officers to create an inclusive and supportive environment where all crew members feel valued and comfortable expressing themselves, and psychological safety is fostered.
#3: Uncovering abuse and harassment
Another case where a steep distance can be proven problematic, is if there are incidents of violence or harassment occurring onboard that should normally be reported and dealt with. If a junior crew member feels like they won’t be listened to or respected when reporting such an incident, they may not go into the trouble of reporting it at all.
This lack of trust and fear of not being taken seriously can perpetuate a culture of abuse and harassment, further compromising the well-being and safety of crew members. It is crucial for organisations to prioritise creating an environment where all crew members feel empowered to report incidents without fear of retaliation or dismissal.
#4: Innovation and creativity
Another reason why shipping organisations should moderate the power gradient among their workforce is recruitment and manning levels. Maintaining a balanced power gradient also fosters a culture of innovation and creativity within shipping companies.
When employees feel valued and supported, they are more likely to contribute new ideas and solutions to challenges. This can lead to improved efficiency, competitive advantage, and overall success in the industry. Additionally, by addressing the power gradient, shipping companies can attract and retain top talent, ensuring a skilled workforce for the future.
#5: Not too steep, not too lax
It should be noted that the ideal power distance can change depending on the organization’s needs as well as the individuals that shape it. There is no fixed answer on how strict or lenient leaders should be, but it is always useful to evaluate power dynamics in the organization and their impact on the workforce.
By finding the right balance in power distance, leaders can create a work environment that promotes collaboration and open communication, allowing employees to feel valued and empowered. This can lead to increased productivity and innovation within the organisation.
#6: A two-way relationship
Overall, by recognising, evaluating, and addressing power distance, leaders can foster a culture of trust and mutual respect where employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns.
This not only improves teamwork and problem-solving but also enhances employee satisfaction and retention. Additionally, a low-power distance environment encourages diversity of thought and encourages individuals to challenge the status quo, leading to greater creativity and innovation within the organisation.