Power distance in Vietnam
Author: Saadi Salama, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the State of Palestine in Vietnam since 2009.
I dislocated my shoulder three months ago. The wound is healing, but the arm pain is still not completely healed. I had to see many doctors to ask how to relieve the pain. They, although in the same department, suggest many different treatments. Some people share with me that they have slightly different views from their superiors, but are afraid to express their opinions publicly during consultations. Because I asked, they exchanged it separately for my reference.
The fact that subordinates do not dare to have a different opinion from their superiors is quite common in a country strongly influenced by Confucianism like Vietnam. I have encountered this many times when working with state agencies here. When I have a proposal for cooperation or initiative with the Vietnamese side, I often discuss it with some junior staff in previous ministries, to assess the feasibility, and propose them to the superior. Many people appreciate, fully support and suggest editing my initiative to be more relevant to reality. But they mostly ask me to write an official letter for them to submit to their high level. They do not feel comfortable asserting that this is the initiative they support. They did not have the courage to assure the leadership that this is a proposal that should be implemented.
I have observed that in state agencies, subordinates are even afraid to present because they are afraid of being seen by their boss as having too many initiatives, afraid of being thought of as overpowered. Some people fear being seen as “showing off,” which could threaten their boss’s position. Many such fears prevent the possibility of working simply and flexibly.
This problem is related to the concept of “power distance”. In many East Asian societies, hierarchies are emphasized. People below tend to respect and revere the people above. This has many advantages but also makes employees not have the courage to “disagree” with their managers.
Power distance causes more serious problems than people think. In South Korea, the plane crash rate used to be higher than the world rate. While studying the cockpit conversations at critical moments, the investigators discovered the co-pilot’s reticence in confronting the captain. While the captain was stumped and misguided, if the co-pilot had been more assertive, the plane could have been saved. But the great power distance prevents this from happening.
Korean then asks to switch the language in the cockpit. Pilots must use English instead of Korean as before. English has only two pronouns, I and you, as well as not many honorifics, to reduce the power distance between the first officer and the captain. This small change contributes to the fact that Korea is currently the country with the highest level of flight safety.
Vietnamese is a language that clearly shows the order of power. When I first came to Vietnam to study Vietnamese in 1980, one evening, I often went to the train station, the only place open 24 hours a day in Hanoi at that time. To practice Vietnamese, I met many people and asked the same question: “Is this the train station?”. The old man, the same age, and the younger said different sentences to answer: “Yes, the station”. That’s just one of many examples showing that the Vietnamese have always had ways for older people to show they are superior and lower to show humility.
I, to a certain extent, really like Vietnam’s culture of “there is above, there is below”, where the elderly are conceded and respected. But between work and love, there must be a distinction. Not every boss is right and not every older person is right. Employees are always afraid to express opinions that will not be good for the overall work.
In foreign companies or organizations, there is always a separate ethics department and hotline for employees to report mistakes of their superiors without fear of being known and punished. Vietnam may also move towards having such independent departments to control the mistakes created by the “power distance”.
Employees must also receive annual training on the culture of debate, courage to have constructive opinions, and courage to raise ideas. Many upper-level leaders are very open-minded and do not want to impose power, but subordinates are afraid of themselves first.
This is also the reason for limiting many initiatives from subordinates. Power distance is also the reason why many agencies are working mechanically.
The cure for my sore arm was trivial. Power distance can have even greater consequences. Bridging this psychological gap is something that each individual and the entire system can realize and do together.