Closing the Power Distance

Aug 23, 2022 5 Min Read
A leader communicating openly - closing the power distance gap

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“Smile, you’re on Candid Camera” is a jingle you may be able to hum even if you never watched the show. But if you’re anywhere close to getting a discount at the movies (or a fan of classic TV), you may recall with unique fondness the experience of seeing people from every walk of life being utterly themselves in the most innocent but revealing moments. Showing this realness was a special knack my father developed in the army.

Lessons from Candid Camera

Dad was a second lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps, stationed in Muskogee, Oklahoma, during World War II. He was assigned the task of recording messages from soldiers to their loved ones. But he had a problem. The rehearsal of the message always went well, but when the red recording light came on, the GIs became nervous and tongue-tied. The recording disks were expensive and couldn’t be reused, so Dad decided to disconnect the red light and record the practice run without them knowing it. On these takes, all the soldiers’ earnest feelings came through. That core idea of recording without others knowing grew into Candid Microphone, then Candid Camera, and eventually into the entire genre of reality television.

When my father interviewed kids for Candid Camera, his favorite part of his work, he faced a challenge. How could he quickly break through the intimidation children feel toward a big unknown adult? He did so by lighting a match and feigning difficulty blowing it out. Balanced on the edge of a preschool-size chair, he would huff and puff with theatrical overacting, turning finally to the youngster and saying, “Can you help me?” And they would. Moments later, my dad and his new friend would be chatting about guardian angels, the wonders of spaghetti, money, and a host of other delightful topics. 

The gap my father was closing is called the “power distance,” a concept developed by Professor Geert Hofstede. This phenomenon can cause people to avoid or defer to those they feel are more powerful and, in doing so, shut down channels of honest communication. By asking for help, my father broke the power distance and opened a gateway to closeness with each and every match blower.

Tapping Into Empathy and Openness

If you lead at least a few people, this message is for you. And in order to develop the closeness needed to build a tight-knit and high-performing team, you’ll need to address the same lopsided dynamics as my father. You must ask for help, step out of having all the answers, and truly enlist a wide spectrum of input to make the changes you want. Speak to people about their needs, desires, and enthusiasms. And make it more than a gesture; authentically be open to using the ideas that spring from these conversations.

I’ve met many leaders who are blind to the power distance. They are always so surprised that employees a rung or two down from them don’t have the confidence to do the things they do. Don’t be one of these leaders. Ask yourself and really consider what it must feel like to have limited power, have authority that can quickly be overruled, and always be a little afraid that the wrong statement or an honest mistake could throw a wrench into your progress toward your goals. Open your empathy stores and imagine what this would be like. And then do some inner work.

Discover: Why Empathy Makes for Stronger Organisations

Here are some questions you can use to close the power distance between you and those who work for you: five for you and five for them.

Questions to ask yourself as a leader:

  • Is fear one of the ways that I gain compliance or deference from my team?
  • Do I make vulnerable admissions that allow my team to see my softer side?
  • Do I pretend to listen and then turn a decision my way, or do I really take in others’ viewpoints?
  • What did I feel toward the boss in my first or early jobs?
  • How is the power distance limiting the way that smart people can make my company better?

Questions to ask your team members directly or in writing:

  • Do you experience a sense of psychological safety around the leaders of our company?
  • Do you feel comfortable disagreeing with me or other leaders in this company?
  • Do you feel able to say no to work that does not add value to this company?
  • Are there any important opinions about our process that you hold back or feel afraid to share?
  • Is there a piece of feedback on my leadership you would like to share?

You may like this: Psychological Safety Unlocks The Potential of Diverse Teams

The power distance between you and others may not melt as quickly or as magically as did for my father and his tiny compatriots. But it can lessen and even at times evaporate if we raise our empathy, show our humanity, and pay attention.

This article was also published on Juliet Funt's LinkedIn

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Juliet Funt is the founder and CEO at JFG (Juliet Funt Group), which is a consulting and training firm built upon the popular teaching of CEO Juliet Funt, author of A Minute to Think.

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