Psychological Safety and Power Distance: What Makes the Asia-Pacific Region Different?

How can we measure the link between psychological safety and business success?

We have been working with a large organisation that provides a vital service to many disadvantaged people in the community. They were curious about the level of psychological safety in some of their offices and asked us to investigate. 

But when we spoke to them about linking psychological safety to measures of performance, a common question came up: How can you connect the way that a staff member feels to the overall objectives of the organisation? 

This organisation was in the middle of extensive changes to their workforce structure and reporting relationships. People were moving between teams, and the leaders of teams were changing.

So although we could measure the level of psychological safety overall, because we never reveal the level of psychological safety for individuals, only for teams, we could not make a connection between the team’s output and its level of psychological safety. 

The lesson? Although it’s possible — and very valuable — to examine the connection between psychological safety and a team’s (and therefore the organisation’s) Key Performance Indicators (KPI), this needs a careful analysis of the connection between the feelings of the individual and the “job to be done.”

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Let’s consider an example: A team that works in a retail store selling high cost items — luxury fashion, automobiles, even (post pandemic) holidays. Does the way they are feeling impact the total sales for the store? Quite possibly, but it’s a very indirect link.

There are other factors such as the size of the store, the location, the current marketing campaigns and more, that have a much greater impact. 

But what about sales conversion rates? That is VERY likely to be impacted by how an employee feels.

In a sales interaction, if the employee feels they have little autonomy, low status, are unfairly rewarded and afraid to try anything new, then their level of engagement with the prospective customer is likely to be low, their enthusiasm will be lacking, and the chance of making the sale? Well, I think we can all remember an interaction like that! 

“Hierarchy (or more specifically, the fear it creates when not handled well) reduces psychological safety.”


What’s different about the Asia-Pacific region?

We’ve chosen to focus this newsletter on teams in the Asia-Pacific region.

Why? Here are a few significant reasons:

  • The region is home to many cross-cultural teams, often with managers and HQ in a vastly different culture to the employees. 
  • Most of the world’s fastest-growing economies are in this region. 
  • Many countries in the region have a high power distance culture reflected in their workplace (see the Primer on Power Distance below).

Organisations in this region are typically seeking a ‘balance” between autonomy and control of workers. The innovation that comes from psychological safety is particularly important in growing economies — and we have often heard this from our clients! 

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Power Distance: A Primer 

Power distance refers to the relationship between higher ranking and lower-ranking individuals in a group. 

People in societies (and workplaces) with a high power distance are more likely to follow a hierarchy where everybody has a place, and high-ranking individuals are honored, respected and often obeyed without question.

In societies with low power distance, people aim to distribute power equally, and questioning of authority is far more common.

The Problem with High Power Distance: Although high power distance is not necessarily harmful, it does make some aspects of psychological safety more challenging.

For example, how do you encourage employees to contribute to discussions and even challenge decisions when this is seen as disrespectful in the workplace?

We will talk more about this in the next blog! 


At Human Capital Realisation, our aim is to help organisations in the Asia-Pacific region see the value and importance — and the dangers and pitfalls (yes there are some!) — of psychological safety in the workplace, and to help leaders apply it to empower their people and power their organisation. 

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