Power Distance and Afghanistan Culture

From Professor Hofstede's book, Culture's Consequences, Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance, and Long-Term Orientation may all be particularly relevant for understanding Afghan culture and Afghanistan business.

What is Power Distance?

PD is the perceived distance between less powerful individuals, families, and organizations and those with the real power.

It is a measure of the acceptance and expectation of unequal distribution of power. The measure of PD, no matter the number, really shows the inequality from the perspective of those with less power.

So how does this impact doing business in Afghanistan as a foreigner?

There are certain expectations Afghans may have of you if you are the boss, certainly because you are the "wealthy foreigner." There is a certain PD between the average Afghan and a foreigner, with foreigners often seen as having more power.


In a shame/honor society, the one with the most power wins. Compromise is rare. To attempt to shame an Afghan will result in you losing, no matter what. Find a way to give the Afghan an honorable "way out" - even if you are right and he/she is wrong, not shaming the Afghan will actually win you a grudging measure of respect.

Being the Boss

The boss in Afghan culture is seen to be the patron - the society is based on patronage from the one most powerful. The boss will be asked for loans for the family of the employee and many other favors not usually considered appropriate in the west. As the foreign boss, you will have to decide if you want to participate in the patronage system, or attempt to impose a different system.

The Patronage System

The patronage system as it is in Afghanistan does not probably help Afghans in the long run. It simply switches their allegiance and reliance on you for the short-term, until you leave and another foreigner comes along enshallah. This is why we attempt in our company to find creative ways to empower Afghans to higher positions of leadership and decision making, as much as possible within the company, so that when the foreigners left, the Afghans could completely take over in a positive way.

Empower the Afghans to Kindness and Charity

One solution one company who has worked for almost 15 years in Afghanistan offered was an Afghan committee to oversee the "gift" fund for when Afghan employees came asking for loans.

Those Afghans who had been identified as responsible leaders were on the committee and new the culture best and were empowered to make the decision of fund dispersal. Those on the committee were from different ethnic groups to minimize accusations of favoritism to one group or another within the company.

The boss is the one whom Afghans will not expect to see signs of weakness. Therefore, to admit wrong or to apologize are opposite Afghan culture. One manager of a large company taught his Afghan leaders weekly on leadership principles from John Maxwell's The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership and had fascinating discussions with the Afghans on how they could apply these leadership principles to the company to make it better.

Part of a Team

To be part of a team in Afghanistan means that the manager and other expatriates should ensure that public disagreement does not happen - this would be shameful.

Work to minimize the apparent power distance between foreigners and Afghans. One team played "get to know you" games at lunch time, where everyone - expat and Afghan - had to respond to questions about life and themselves. This simple game broke down walls, had Afghans and expats laughing together, and the productivity of that team for the following year was astonishing!

It takes a skilled manager to create an environment where the real opinions of Afghan teammates are shared. The fear always is of saying something others will disagree with or are wrong - this would be shameful to the individual.

Prioritizing Work

Prioritizing work will take training. In a culture where relationships, politeness, and hospitality are critical, operating businesses to global standards is challenging.

It requires Afghans who can be open to new methods and ways of doing things, so our recommendation is to interview, interview, interview, then train, train, train! There are Afghan men and women of all ages who are increasingly open to learning how to bridge the Afghan-western divide, to decrease the power distance, and learn how to work within certain time constraints.

This does not mean that an expat can simply impose a complete western way of work. There are numerous holidays Afghans are obligated to participate in which may interfere with timelines. Work to get Afghan staff the ability to communicate honestly goals and realistic productivity within the schedule of family and cultural demands.

Living in Afghanistan takes a herculean effort even to get to work for many Afghans. A number of expats who live on compounds where they have a cook and every other need taken care of often demonstrate a clear lack of empathy with what it takes just to make life happen here.

The power distance is great in the above situation, and in this case we have seen Afghans and expatriates dealing with huge amounts of frustration and inability to bridge the cultural divide.

Well, when I come back after a tea break, I'll probably make this page about Power Distance go into two pages, and keep adding more information. Let me know if there is a particular question you have, something you disagree with, or an area you'd like more information about.

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