Friday, July 29, 2016

Is a 'strong' leader desirable? - II

Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth - Einstein

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about Hofstede's Dimensions devised by the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede. The most interesting of these dimensions is 'Power Distance Index' (PDI). PDI was a measure of a society's attitude towards hierarchy and authority. It was measured by questions like: 'Are employees afraid to express disagreement with their managers?' and 'Are power holders entitled to special privileges?' There is a quote from Hofstede's text Culture's Consequences about low PDI countries:
Power is something of which power holders are almost ashamed and they will try to underplay. I once heard a Swedish (low PDI) university official state that in order to exercise power he tried not to look powerful. Leaders may enhance their informal status by renouncing formal symbols. In (low PDI) Austria, Prime Minister Buno Kriesky was known to sometimes  take the streetcar to work. In 1974, I actually saw the Dutch (low PDI) prime Minister,Joop den Uyl, on vacation with his motor home at a camping site in Portugal. Such behaviour of the powerful would be very unlikely in high PDI Belgium or France.
You can generally divide power distance into high power distance and low power distance. If you belong to a culture displaying high power distance, you will tend to view power as a reality of life and believe everyone has a specific place in the hierarchy of power. You will expect that power will be distributed unequally. You will more easily accept autocratic and paternalistic power relations. If you are a subordinate, you simply acknowledge the power of your superior based merely upon his relative position in the hierarchy of authority.

It doesn't take much thinking to conclude that India is a high PDI country. You won't find the behaviours described above in India even if there was no security risk. The 'lal batti'  culture is widespread and leaders love to announce their arrival with a lot of noise. Their power will be indicated by the number of cars in their fleet. Getting Z plus category security is regarded as a status symbol. Prostrating before political leaders or greeting them with huge garlands is a common sight.

In a group decision making process, the members are thrown together to deliberate and reach a conclusion. The thought is that each member will give an independent, unbiased opinion. In a high PDI culture, group dynamics will guarantee that this will not happen. The authors of The Invisible Gorilla note that 'group processes can inspire a feeling akin to "safety in numbers" among the most hesitant members, decreasing realism and increasing certainty'.

The authors describe an experiment to determine how group processes work. What was found was that the people who assumed leadership roles were not more competent than others. They just had more dominant personalities and thus spoke first. And in 94% of the problems (It was a math test), the group's final answer was the first answer that anyone suggested. The first answer will be given by the most dominant personality. The authors write:
So in this experiment, group leadership was determined largely by confidence. People with dominant personalities tend to exhibit greater self-confidence, and due to the illusion of confidence, others tend to trust and follow people who speak with confidence. If you offer your opinion early and often, people will take your confidence as an indicator of your ability, even if you are actually no better than your peers.The illusion of confidence keeps the cream blended in. 
In The Poverty of Historicism, Karl Popper quotes Lord Acton's Law of corruption: 'You cannot give a man power over other men without tempting him to misuse it - a temptation which roughly increases with the amount of power wielded, and which very few are capable of resisting.' This is especially true in high PDI societies. We should be careful about what we wish for. We might get it.

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