Power Distance (The Cultural Curse For Africa’s Self-Development)
When I was young (according to the Yoruba culture), we were taught to
- respect our elders (very valid),
- to never speak back at our elders (still valid)
- and that the elders don’t lie (well, some of our leaders are bad examples).
As a kid, having these notions at the back of my mind were reasons I couldn’t challenge
- my JSS3 art teacher who beat me for doing one of my art assignments so well,
- my father (with all due respect to him) who slapped me often for not being able to convince the school bursar to let me be in school for not paying my school fees,
- a former employer for not fulfilling their employment promises that made me take their job in the first place,
- a senior colleague who would resume late at all times and still threaten me for doing the job I was paid to do.
- an elderly man who abuses his authority as the CSO of the street by enslaving the street security men to do his house chores or they lose their jobs.
I did not know how to deal with these situations amongst many others all in the name of “culture” and respecting the elders until I read the books “Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell” and “The Villager by Feyi Olubodun”.
For the first time, I came across the concept called “Power Distance” and in clear terms, I understood why some intelligent young people find it difficult to get their voices heard by engaging the elderly in intelligent debates or conversations without being seen as rude.
“The Villager” in particular is an interesting read and I would recommend it to any Nigerian that is willing to understand some of the behavioural patterns that have made us Africans what we are today beyond consumer of brands. The writer; Mr Feyi Olubodun, MD/CEO of Insight Publicis shared amazing insights from a marketing point of view using several lenses to illustrate how Africans consume brands.
The book in my own opinion is good material for anyone that would love to learn about the cultural nuances and social dynamics underpinning our behavioural patterns as I strongly believe that economies thrive on culture and I hope more people would take advantage of the book to understand how.
There is, however, another lens to culture and how it impacts us today which moderates the opinions I am about to share. My take on culture and social dynamics are from the lenses of a young Nigerian creative designer, a millennial, a modern African parent, a product design enthusiast and an advocate of a better Nigerian society.
I strongly believe that some of the social dynamics indicated in the book are increasingly changing and becoming anachronistic as the access to internet and information continues to blur the lines across borders and cultures. 70% of the Nigerian population (a population filled with baby boomers, millennials and generation Z) are below 35 years old. For the sake of this article, I am going to focus on the baby boomers I/II and the millennials
some of whom occupy a position of leadership within our society today.
According to a KPMG report, “Millennials prefer to understand the value of doing something upfront and they are more confident to challenge the system. They are brutally honest with each other and they expect the same from their elders, superiors or employers.
Though the baby-boomers are known for their work ethics, they work to feel safe and secure while the millennials feel secure and driven by technology. These generations respond to completely different leadership styles within the society.
Baby boomers who try to manage millennials using the old fashioned are doomed to fail. But the good news is baby boomers who learn to adjust their management styles to respond to millennials’ unique characteristics can realize tremendous benefits from millennials’ presence in the workplace and society at large.
For example, millennials’ affinity for technology can be invaluable in helping societies leverage technology to become more collaborative, communicative and efficient. And their desire for work that feeds their sense of belonging and self-esteem may push organizations or societies to become more flexible and quick to adapt — both qualities which characterize successful economies in the 21st century.”
To drive home the point lets explore two of the cultural nuances “The Villager” drew my attention to:
The writer on page 44 stated that “…Thus the African is introduced to and imbued with a sense of hierarchy and power distance that will stay with him for the rest of his life. It will govern him in school, in the workplace, in business and in politics.” Power distance was defined in the book according to Geert Hofstede
as “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally”.
The writer went further and stated that “In every social setting the African seeks to identify the Baba in the group, and then positions himself to the degree of power distance he feels most comfortable within that setting. Subsequently, he expects to navigate his way through the group based on social progressions accorded to him by the Baba of the group”.
So my questions amongst many to the writer are:
- what if the Baba of the group is not a visionary and cannot see farther enough?
- what if the Baba of the group is self-centred like most of our politicians are?
- what if the Baba of the group has no noble background and plans not to leave any legacy behind?
The Power distance index of Nigeria is high (80 according to Hofstede’s Dimensions)
and this cultural concept has done more damage to young people than help them. These days, young people lack the patience, discipline, knowledge and wisdom to communicate their ideas and opinions clearly, assertively and respectfully as they have been subjected to this concept one way or the other.
The Nigerian society had been led by some interesting type of leaders, most of whom are not ashamed of their misconduct and the public ridicule that comes with it (forgive my assertion but page 58 of the book sheds more light on this). Their questionable acts and character flaws were neither sanctioned satisfactorily (based on our dilapidated justice system) or were never sanctioned at all (based on corruption). This social behaviour has gradually exposed the youth to engage and act shamelessly themselves.
This video link is a typical case of an elder statesman who confessed to rigging elections and the question is “would he be sanctioned accordingly?” (No!). When he gets a pat on the back like they all do, what signals are they sending to the society and the youth?
From experience, when a bright and honest young person or subordinate questions the dishonest acts of the elderly, a superior or authority at work or within the community, she is either accused of lack of home training or wisdom or is being labelled inconsequential. Their reactions almost start with any of these classic “do you know who you are talking to?” or “am I your mate?” or “do you know who I am?” statements to display power and status. A better trained young person with respect to the subject matter faces the same fate and is seen as a threat, daring and deemed too ambitious. Her persecutions may even escalate to an eventual loss of job or position at the worst.
This video link is another classic example of how power distance display in the midst of a conversation.
Over time, this pattern has made it difficult for a lot of young people communicate their ideas successfully. Unqualified deference to the elderly has left many with a low self-esteem but the game is changing and the old power structures are being challenged by post-millennial Nigerians. The Internet is democratizing power gradually and the millennials and Gen Z are influencing the agenda in no small measure. The millennials are here, the Gen Z are fast becoming and the internet is the best thing that has happened to them. The Internet gives them access to enough information to create, collaborate, engage and disrupt the society with. They use every platform they could set their itchy fingers on to air their views, frustrations and most times they do it with anger, vengeance and so much bitterness hoping they would get justice from the court of public opinion.
To close this gap or at least reduce the Power Distance Index to a significant manageable scale, the elderly, senior professionals, politicians and religious leaders need to be open-minded, offer guidance/mentorship, share their dreams and engage the youth with wisdom and without fear of losing relevance as the synergy between these generations must be coherent to truly deliver the future Africa desperately needs. The youth, on the other hand, needs to be patient, respectful (our culture demands this), learn from history and help drive the “good and thoughtful” agenda of the elderly and not discard all of them.
*One of the pitfalls of power distance well documented can be best understood from page 206 to 261 of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” (I strongly recommend this).
Power distance is the reason Paul Kegame would jail Diane Shima Rwigara (a younger presidential candidate) for aspiring to run for Rwanda’s first seat, it’s the same reason President Yoweri Museveni would do everything possible to annihilate any form of opposition to continue to rule for decades.
As long as culture is one of the factors that defines every society, it must be tweaked and modified where necessary in Africa to improve and make a better society.
In Conclusion, education would play a pivotal role in designing a more intelligent, inclusive and enlightened African society.