By distance, I do not mean any sort of easily quantifiable form of distance that can be measured in miles or kilometers. No, I mean the intangible distance between people in power and those who are not within Latin America. Although Chile is over five thousand miles away from my home in Cleveland, it is not the sheer geographic distance that defines our differences in culture. Many may qualify five thousand miles as being extremely far away, but in my opinion it’s really not. When compared with a nine thousand mile journey to India or a seven thousand mile flight to China, a ten hour flight to Chile seems quite manageable, if not short. As someone who has flown hundreds of thousands of miles and visited dozens of cities around the world, I can say that the tangible difference between two points although real, is unimportant in understanding the world. What is more valuable is understanding that distance (defined as the amount of difference between different cultures) is abstract but very real. The culture of the United States and Chile are distinctly different in more ways than one but in this blog I will discuss what I have learned about Chilean culture when it comes to their perceptions of power and accessibility to those who are in a position of authority be it bosses or professors.
PDI or the Power Distance Index defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally is a good place to begin the analysis. The Power Distance Index is one of the six “cultural dimensions” that define a culture and was originally developed by Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede. As an International Business student I am all too familiar with these six definers of cultures as Hofstede is included in every International Management class and probably every single IM text book out there. However, before living abroad for such an extended period, first time being in India, I infrequently saw them in practice and was not able to contrast them with what I experience in the U.S. What I have learned at FEN and through my personal experience I have seen that there is a great divide between acceptance of inequality in power between Chile and the U.S. Chile scores highly on the Power Distance Index while the U.S. scores much lower meaning Chile is generally more accepting of inequality and is less prone to challenge authority. I have seen this to be extremely true based on my time at FEN. In the classroom it is extremely uncommon and even rude to challenge what a teacher states or interrupt them in any way. In one of my classes a number of other exchange students from the Nordic countries, who are egalitarian and open to discussion, challenged the ayudante (Chilean version of a TA) saying that a number of his facts were incorrect. Although I thought nothing of it, as a class we received an informal lecture describing how open disagreement with the professor is downright disrespectful in Chile, because it causes the person to lose credibility with the rest of the group. This credibility or the idea of always “saving face” is extremely important in Chilean and more broadly, Latin American culture. It helps to foster trust within a group whether business or personal. I also found that professors, especially those who are very traditional, do not make themselves as available for extra help as they do in the United States. It is not expected of them because they are in a place of authority at a much higher societal position than the student.
While I did learn firsthand about the differing dynamic of power in the Chilean academic environment when compared with that of the U.S., I learned in my classes how it applies to the Chilean business environment. Many of the themes I just discussed are true in this realm as well. Open disagreement with the boss or any superior rarely happens, if ever. Subordinates are expected to follow instructions and not challenge the direction of their superiors. I also learned that Chilean (and Latin American) employees tend to have less autonomy over their work than those in the U.S. or other Anglo founded countries. Part of the Power Distance in the business environment is that the boss accepts full responsibility for any successes or failures. For this reason, Chilean employees defer almost all decision making of any importance to their boss and will wait for their direct go ahead before moving forward. This is generally the opposite of what happens in the U.S. where independent problem solving and autonomy among subordinates is highly valued and encouraged. Lastly, I realized that similarly to what occurs in the Chilean academic realm, the negative attitude in the Chilean business community towards open confrontation is due to the high power distance found in Chilean society. A subordinate should not challenge a superior regardless of their education or personal achievements because it causes the superior to lose credibility among their colleagues and employees as well as have their power undermined.
In closing, Chileans tend to have a much higher acceptance of inequality within organizations than Americans which was difficult for me to adapt to. In a classroom setting I learned that direct disagreement is disrespectful and can cause a loss of trust and credibility between students and the teacher. Stemming from my experiences in the classroom the same is true of the business culture in Chile and Latin America. Large differences (distance) in power is widely accepted as normal and is the status-quo in Latin America meaning those who lack power or a position of authority are not as envious of those who do when compared with the United States. Missteps here as an American manager will kill your chances of having success while in Chile. Whether negotiating a deal with a Chilean customer or leading an international team here, always know who is in charge and who will be the final decision maker. Do not send a low or mid-level employee to negotiate a deal for you. Always send a high ranking executive to meet with Latin American customers so that they know you take their business seriously. Expanding on that point, if you find yourself leading a team of Chilean employees, remember that you must be assertive with your authority and give them the guidance they expect from a superior. Failure to do this will cause you to lose credibility as a boss or result in you losing an important deal. Truly understanding cultural distance and adapting to it in a meaningful way is the best way to ensure success when dealing with people from a culture that is different than your own, Chile included.