Power Distance in Software Development

I was in a meeting once with my boss (literally the CEO, a Malaysian) and some representatives of another company (Americans) where we were discussing the technical details of a possible future partnership. At one point, one of the Americans said to my boss that he was pleasantly surprised that I was openly speaking up independently of my boss and willing to correct him on some points when he didn’t quite get the technical details right. It seems they were used to working with some Indian outsourcing firms, where due to cultural differences, the tendency was for the Indian guys to accept everything the Americans asked for without question and delivered it exactly as requested, even if there were obvious problems.

The concept is called Power Distance, where cultures with a higher power distance are more likely to just accept without question the authority of “higher-ups”. While in cultures with lower power distance, people feel less of a gap with people of “higher” status, and are thus more willing to speak up openly.

I believe that I live and work in a country with a high power distance. It is typical of workers here to have an exchange like:

“Why are we doing this, isn’t it kind of dumb?”

“Because the boss says so.”

“Oh, ok”

Not just with people in “higher” positions, but especially with foreigners. I witnessed this first hand when I first observed how other people behaved when they first had to work with our project managers who were based in another country; many would be hesitant to raise their concerns directly with the foreign counterparts.

In an industry where users and clients and management often do not really understand the finer technical details of what exactly they want to happen, being able and willing to raise concerns regardless of differences in position or status is not only a distinct advantage, it may very well be an important aspect of the job. All the best developers I’ve worked with are the ones who are willing to call out problems, and it’s a trait I personally encourage in anyone I work with.

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