I'm reading the book "High Output Management" by Andrew S. Grove, a (naturalized) American, who distinguishes between "knowledge power" - i.e. people who have a lot of influence in a company, not due to formal authority of their position, but due to their knowledge - and "position power", i.e. people who have a formal position of power in the hierarchy of the company.

And here is a statement that I found surprising:

We Americans tend to be reluctant to exercise position power deliberately and explicitly -- it is just "not nice" to give orders.

(This is in a context where after discussions in meetings, consensus has not been reached, but for reasons of business a decision needs to be made, and the "position power" person would have to make that decision)

I was surprised to read that the author thinks this is a feature of Americans. Apart from this opinion by just one person - albeit as Intel employee #3 and later Intel CEO someone with a lot of experience in the area: Is there any truth to that statement? Perhaps backed by studies that have been done in different countries / cultural groups?

  • Why surprised - he was explaining something based on his experience. Do you have the experience to prove or disprove it?
    – Solar Mike
    Jan 27 '20 at 5:21
  • So you were in charge of a company the size of Intel or you worked with 2 or 3...
    – Solar Mike
    Jan 27 '20 at 5:41
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    The reasoning is, I assume, that there is a competence hierarchy, where people are respected based on the competence they exert. People who have to enforce their position not by conviction but by "look at my crown!" are seen as petty and weak. In general however, the actual positions of management are based on competence and respect related to that. This is common in general, not just the US, but less prevalent outside of free market domains and less prevalent in more collectivist societies (the author is a Hungarian who fled from a communist regime - his contrast was only communism vs USA).
    – Battle
    Jan 27 '20 at 8:07
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    Doesn't this primarily depend on who/where he is comparing to? I don't have any proper sources but by subjective experience I would guess his statement is true relative to some Asian countries but wrong relative to most countries in Western Europe.
    – quarague
    Jan 27 '20 at 8:57
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    @Battle Good point - he in fact makes explicit comparisons to Hungarian communism in other parts of the book. I guess "We Americans" was not the best category to put it. Jan 28 '20 at 0:50

Yep. There's a ton of research on this:

Are some of the more useful references I've enjoyed in the past. They cover a broad spectrum of ideas around the differences between cultures.

One factor in the general idea you are describing is the factor of Power Distance - which is defined as:

Power distance refers to the way in which power is distributed and the extent to which the less powerful accept that power is distributed unequally. Put simply, people in some cultures accept a higher degree of unequally distributed power than do people in other cultures. unequally distributed power than do people in other cultures.

There's not an obvious vector for "and also the extent to which the people in power try not to use that power because they are uncomfortable" - but I've generally seen it described that cultures with a low power distance index show that all individuals are not so accepting of what you describe as positional power.

And - yes - it is studied and rated - the last link on my list gives a set of countries and their ratings. US is at 40, which is is on the low side (ie, not very accepting of power distance... even though there is a big divergence between the haves and the have-nots on things like wealth). Take - for comparison - countries that also do a lot of tech, with citizens/former citizens working in the US or collaborating with with the US frequently - India=77, China=80, Poland=68, Japan=54 (yeah, not as high as China!).

And it's not necessarily a location thing - one can't necessarily generalize - Poland (68) and Germany (35) are quite close. There's a whole lot of factors that go into the "why" of all this.

And lastly - I'll add that this stuff isn't a universal. Pockets of a nation may have adapted to be quite different - this is usually a measurement of the general population. For example, almost any military is quite authoritarian (for obvious reasons), especially at the front lines. Including the US military, even though we have a low power distance index, we actually train officers and enlisted to give and take orders. And after some disasterous airline flight problems, training programs to indoctrinate different cultural patterns in areas were safety was key have been developed and in some cases piloted, although they are not universal.

One could say, that these are separate cultures within a geographic area. That's probably the most accurate way to put it. As there are other cultures within the US that are vastly different than the majority - think Hasidic Jews, the Amish, or even just some of the big differences between the North and the South, or the MidWest vs. the West Coast. It's usually clearest when you compare cultures that are fairly well segregated from the mainstream, as the segregation itself can influence the divergence of values. Not saying one is one wrong and one is right --- just saying that there is no easy broad brush that covers everyone.


I've only worked in knowledge-based companies, so my experience is limited. But I believe Grove's observation is correct. The ethic of leadership that avoids giving direct orders comes, in no small part, from the work of Robert Greenleaf, an industrial psychologist with the old Bell Telephone company.

See this https://www.worldcat.org/title/servant-as-leader/oclc/24918113

Good decisions often come from lower than the top in knowledge companies, and many leaders don't want to suppress those decisions. (Or, don't want to be seen suppressing them.)

The officer corps of the US military is different. Young officers start out with far more position power than knowledge power. As they advance the military invests a lot in developing their knowledge power. As a result, many modern generals and admirals are very deep thinkers.

All that being said, every person is different, and most people in authority have distinctive personal styles.

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    Interesting background. Still I'd like to know if this is a particularly American thing, because as I said in a comment to my question, it definitely is a Japanese thing. And in my experience, German IT companies aren't that different from American companies in that regard. So I yet have to see a country that differs from what Grove labels an American trait. Feb 1 '20 at 22:33

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