Power Distance in the Workplace: 3 Types of Space


Most of us are familiar with the success-oriented ideal of getting the corner office. It is considered that a person has arrived when they achieve this aspect of a personal goal in their agency or company. Among the benefits of advancement is greater responsibility, improvements in work space and having a bigger voice. I would like to comment on three types of space or distance. Distance in this topic has to do both with separation between layers of employees as well as proximity or closeness.

Several years ago I worked for a manager and I called her “boss” at times. I regarded this as an informal compliment in the sense that she was highly capable but collaborative and also as a term of respect for her expertise.

More recently, I worked for a manager who would not allow me to call her “boss.” Her view of this term was that she considered herself as a collaborator who also happened to be officially in charge. I was appreciative of this as well.

Physical Space
Many have had the experience of sitting across their manager’s desk in a low, nondescript chair while the manager’s chair is a bit higher, emphasizing authority. I do not think that this is always intentional but it can leave a person feeling less important in the decision-making process. I call this “hierarchical separation.” I believe that a chain of authority is necessary, however, it is important to also foster a team atmosphere in managing employees.

There is a balance to be developed in this area as too much familiarity can breed contempt as the old adage goes. The idea is to consider who is ultimately in charge as a distinction from who is continually in charge. This emphasizes who an employee can go to for support and assistance rather than who they must always check with prior to moving forward in every instance.

Direct verbal communication as well as email can set a tone for authoritative versus collaborative distance. There can also be a combination of authority/collaboration which is appropriate and used effectively. How this is perceived is of course what is important to any employee.

Effective communication with employees can bridge space that may have existed prior. My opinion is that it is important to eliminate unneeded distance between managers and those that they manage while retaining appropriate authority in the area of power distance.

Tim Dendy is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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I think this was well said. I also think there must be consistency in the application of the three. You cannot say titles are not important and want to be friendly with the staff. However, you remain in the office and contact staff via telephone and e-mails when you all are in the office on the same day. You must believe in the tips that you practice and implement. Otherwise, the team will know that it’s not genuine.