“Distance to Power cripples the Brazilian economy: Does this apply to our organizations?”


Didier Marlier

September 19, 2010

From Disruption to Engagement

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I am always upset when people automatically assume that I go on holiday when I say  that I head to Brazil, and that they add with the usual idiotic blink of the eye: “Beach, samba and palm trees”. In my modest experience, Brazilians work harder and longer hours than any European or American but the efficiency of the system is far worse.

During a gathering of 70 Brazilian C.E.O.s at the Fundação Dom Cabral, two bright researchers, Carmen Migueles and Marco Tulio Zanini, got everybody’s attention when they presented their recent book[1] and critical conclusion: What costs most to the Brazilian economy is a leadership cultural trait already evoked by Gert Hofstede (the “guru” of cross-cultural management): Distance to Power.

Distance to Power and its acolytes (fear to admit temporary incompetence, fear of failure, defensiveness, assumptions building, negative fantasies, attribution of bad intentions, etc.) dramatically destroy value in three ways:

Personality cult: implies that seniority is superiority; Seniors with narcissistic tendencies will prevent young talents to “run faster than them” and create a culture of passivity and obedience. It is true at the scale of a country, it is valid for an organization too.

Perception of unfairness & absence of meritocracy: Distance to Power means absence of openness, lack of feedback or transparency. Perceptions of unfairness will not be checked and people will prefer to be victims whose only revenge will flourish into negative, cynical and disabused gossips.

Issues not addressed: the last consequence of this all, will be a profound disinterest from the workers in solving issues, thinking proactively and owning the solutions. They will behave like the worse of public servants (as the stereotype often unfairly depicts)… And once again this is a warning to our own businesses.

Carmen and Marco Tulio conclude that Distance to Power will consequently give birth to the worse form of “organizational cancer”: Lack of Trust! This, in turn provokes:

Reinforced need for control & monitoring: which we all know is hugely expensive, demotivating and slows our whole processes down

Difficulty to act with autonomy: as employees, mistrusting authority will mainly seek to cover the backside and second guess what the bosses want to hear

Predominance of the short term: since people do not identify with the firm nor its values, they mainly work to ensure tomorrow is covered while their energy is longing for finding a better workplace, elsewhere

No spontaneous collaboration: the lack of trust pushes everyone back into their silo and provoked the “conditionality reflex” in everyone

This all badly affects the bottom line, of course, through high transactions costs…

I found remarkable the conclusions of Carmen and Marco Tulio as well as their suggestion that, what costs enormously to the Brazilian economy (and certainly not just the Brazilian economy!) is also potentially at play in our own organizations. I draw a parallel with Lencioni’s “five dysfunctions in a team”[2] whose key message is that the visible part of the organizational iceberg may be the financial results (which he calls “Attention to Results”) but that it is totally dependent from the level of Trust created by us, leaders.

On my way for a two weeks long marathon between Paris-Lyon-Johanesburg-Paris again. Will do my best to publish next week’s post but will be in very taking week-end workshop in South Africa. Have a great week all,


[1] C. Migueles & M. T. Zanini “Liderança baseada em valores” 2010 Elsevier

[2] See post of 17th January 2010



  1. Marvin Faure

    This problem is particularly difficult for leaders to overcome since, let’s face it, for most people it is extremely gratifying to have a large power distance with one’s followers. It feels good to enjoy the trappings of power, to have people’s automatic respect and to have every order executed without question or argument! And if you are the boss, it must be because you are smarter than the others, right? You deserve it! So who are they to question your judgment?

    Rather than change, it is much easier for leaders either to deny they are in this situation or to dismiss it as unimportant. The intellectual argument for change is weak when set against the effort required and the emotional and psychic costs!

    I believe we can influence young leaders early in their career to take the right path, especially if they can be exposed to the right mentors and role models. But do we have any examples of senior leaders that have successfully and permanently reduced their power distance? If so, what triggered the change? How did they do it?

  2. Francisco Ferraroli

    Sem dúvida essa distância é um câncer para as organizações. Minhas tentativas de diminuí-la sempre obtiveram excelentes respostas! E é muito mais simples do que se imagina: o que se pede é transparência, honestidade e persistência na construção de uma nova relação entre líderes e liderados.

  3. Dimitri Boisdet

    Who, specially in the 21st century, could disagree with this?

    As you say it elsewhere, this type of management and relation to power were very common in western corporations in the past century (and before). Change, and improvement, probably came from the US starting with the dotcoms. I guess it is greatly part of natural evolution.
    My point here is that to some degree, all countries and societies grow up going through their own natural steps; others experience is pretty useful and helpful, but you still have to build up your own, if only because of mentalities and cultural differences. When changes occur in the US, they reach Europe only a few years after. Brazil being a step behind economically speaking (although growing at a fast pace and steadily narrowing the gap), mentalities may still be the ones we knew here some decades ago. Going from A to D can be faster when you learn from others experience, but you still need to go through B and C to some point.

    The parallel I could draw here is with democracy. With our arrogance of so called developed countries, we – but specially Americans – decided to spread democracy all over the world, no matter what, simply by Xeroxing our own models. Democracy is obviously fine, but you can not pretend to have it work instantly in countries that have an history shaped with very different habits, political traditions and culture. What happens in Iraq or Afghanistan perfectly illustrates this; before reaching our level of democracy, with strong institutions and government, they need to go through some steps we went through. In French we say “On ne peut pas aller plus vite que la musique”, which translates into something like “You can not go faster than music” (“jumping to the gun” might be the equivalent, but not sure); you may accelerate the tempo, but you still need to follow the notes.
    In the case of this note, and many others, it is probably a matter of fine tuning. Brazil will overcome the problem, faster than we did, but following its path with a mix of others’ experience and own natural evolution. Your work there, Didier, will be key to that process! 😉

    A great week to everyone and to you!

  4. Didier Marlier

    Thank you gentlemen:
    – To Marvin: yes such leaders exist and you are right, there is something that seems to drive them: Authenticity. It seems to provide them with a feeling of self-confidence which means that they do not need to hide behind distance to Power…
    – To Francisco: I like the name you give it: a real organizational cancer. And as we all know, 70% of a cluture comes directly from the attitude of its leaders. Distance to Power contaminates quickly a whole organization!
    – To Dimitri: Thank you for this political twist (to be expected from a great “Le Monde” chroniqueur!). And as said, I dont believe this is simply Brazil: Distance to power afflicts many of our organizations!
    Thanks to you three for enriching the reflections, best regards


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