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Miscommunication and Power Distance in Business world Essay

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Updated: Dec 11th, 2019


Miscommunication and power distance causes business failure if left unchecked. High power distance leads to business complications as superiors are disconnected from the real goings on in an institution. Employees will refrain from telling their bosses about certain insights thus leading to undesirable outcomes. Additionally, employees will become demoralized and production will diminish.

Therefore, it is imperative to detect problems in these areas before they spiral out of control. The discussion will involve two case studies that did not perceive such challenges, and thus encountered dire consequences. The first is an Airline Company – Korean Air and the second is an automobile manufacturer – Nissan. Both organizations suffered immense losses and project failures due to miscommunication or power distance issues.

Definition of terms

Miscommunication refers to a ruined type of communication that arises when the message to be communicated is obstructed thus preventing its transmission (Kujal 24). Five main types of barriers exist in communication and they include semantic/ language, organizational, personal, emotional and physical barriers.

Language barriers stem from “poorly expressed messages, faulty translations, technical language, and poorly clarified assumptions” (Griffin & Pustay 15). On the other hand, organizational barriers stem from bad organizational policies and rules, the status of the employee in the firm and how the organization structures its management levels (Kujal 54). Additionally, some businesses simply have limited communication facilities.

Griffin & Pustay (92) adds that personal barriers emanate from a business leader’s attitude, fear among employees concerning negative feedback, overemphasis on bureaucratic channels, and lack of time. Some people may simply be unwilling to communicate and may ignore messages.

Emotional barriers relate to premature evaluation of the message, mental distractions and poor information retention (Kujal 56). Physical barriers emanate from the proximity of the message sender and receiver. If no technology exists to facilitate communication, then miscommunication may arise.

Businesses that succumb to miscommunication may experience difficulties in job assignments, implementation of work and accident prevention. These outcomes may lead to low employee morale, financial losses, legal suits and maybe even business closedowns. Therefore, organizations must avoid miscommunication at all costs.

Hofstede defines power distance as “the extent to which less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally” (98). The notion also encompasses the extent to which people believe that their superiors have greater power than them. In countries with a high level of power distance, employees rarely disagree with their superiors.

Gladwell (215) aggress with the above author. He adds that their bosses are autocratic and make all the decisions in the organization. High power distance undermines the real potential in a business. Problems of power distance will often arise when two separate cultures interact.

The result is a “clash of cultures and instability” (Hofstede115). This may lead to reduced performance or even business transaction failure. Therefore, power distance discrepancies ought to be understood and dealt with accordingly.

Case studies

In the business world, cases of power distance have led to dire consequences in the past. A case in point is Korean Air in the 1980s and 1990s. This airline reported one of the highest numbers of crashes in the air industry (Gladwell 180). In 1997, a flight heading to Guam from Korea’s capital crashed and killed approximately 228 people; only 26 passengers survived.

This was not the first time that a crash had been recorded. In 1977, 1979, 1987, and 1998 other Korean Air flights also crashed. (Gladwell 180). These quick successions of accidents led to the suspension of Korean Air from Air France and Delta Airlines’ partnership list. Word went round that the company was undependable. Therefore, passengers refrained from using the Airline’s services (Gladwell 182).

It should be noted that now Korea has a spotless flying record. It changed things in 1999 and has never looked back. Nonetheless, the company risked and lost people’s lives during this dark phase. It almost closed down because of these preventable disasters. The point of this report is to analyze the power distance issues that led to the problem, and how they could have been prevented.

At first instance, individuals imagined that the crashes were caused by poorly serviced planes or old infrastructure. Alternatively, they imagined the company’s pilots lacked the necessary training to handle a job of such enormous responsibilities.

However, it was found that Korean Air did not have any of these technical problems. A deeper investigation revealed that there were “cultural issues that came in the way of proper performance” (Gladwell 207). The company sourced its plane from renowned airplane manufacturers; Airbus and Boeing.

These institutions designed aircrafts that depended on transparent and equal communication between the pilot and copilot. In one particular scenario, of the Korean Air flight 801, the copilot was in a position to prevent the crash but failed to do so. It is imperative to understand why this occurred

Whenever an aircraft crash takes place, plenty of things can happen to propel the situation, which was true for Korean Air. The pilots often worked for extensive shifts, so most of them were not alert (Gladwell 213). Kujal (56) explains that emotional issues like lack of mental alertness cause miscommunication.

In fact, an analysis of the crash reports found that 52% of the cases had pilots who worked for more than 12 hours continuously (Gladwell 213). Additionally, investigations revealed that the company kept lumping different pilots together. 44% of all the crash cases had pilots who had never worked together, so they were not free with each other. Kujal (49) also notes that “discomfort with one’s superiors hampers communication”.

In addition to these company policy issues, it was also found that a number of other smaller errors led to the final disaster. Usually, these began with one pilot knowing something important and keeping it to himself. The other pilot would realize that a problem existed but failed to catch it.

He or she then compounded the situation by making his own mistakes. Additionally, a co-pilot may have known something and may have refrained to communicate it to the pilot for a number of reasons. One of these motives was the cultural problem of power distance.

In addition to the many problems that Korean Air experienced, high power distance was one of the issues that had compounded the problem. A study was done among pilots around the world to find out which ones have the highest power distance; South Koreans had the highest scores (Griffin & Pustay 40).

Given the above revelation, it is unequal power between the copilot and the pilot in the Korean Air flights that contributed to the crashes. The first engineers and co-pilots are meant to foresee problems before they arise. They should communicate these problems to the pilot clearly so that he may prevent occurrence of a crash.

If a copilot places the pilot in high esteem, he or she may not communicate the issue candidly. He may try to go around it, and thus prevent the pilot from understanding the full repercussions of the danger. As mentioned earlier in the essay, persons from high power-distance cultures tend to deliver bad news to their subordinates and positive information to their superiors (JETRO 8).

However, the case of flying an airplane is different because bad news usually emanates from a person of lower rank. The co-pilots of Air Korea were required to ignore their cultural inclinations and convey negative information to their superiors (Gladwell 214). It appears as though most of them could not overcome this cultural barrier.

If one reviews the transcript of the Guam crash in 1997, it is evident that some power distance issues led to the problem in that plane. First, the pilot revealed to the co-pilot that he was overworked and tired. Thereafter, he decided to a do visual landing before entrance into Guam. The copilot realized that this would be a problem because “visual landings require perfect weather” (Gladwell 191).

The copilot knew that the weather was inappropriate for such an approach, so he should have told the pilot. However, instead of stating this explicitly, he only hinted at it by asking the pilot whether he thought that there was more rain in Guam (Gladwell 216). As the pilot continued to prepare for his landing, the flight engineer realized that there was a serious problem with the pilot’s decision, but he also failed to state this explicitly.

He hinted at the pilot that the weather radar was quite helpful. What he should have said was that the weather was inappropriate for visual landing as the pilot would not see where he was going. Therefore, the pilot should have thought of another course of action that did not depend on his eyesight.

Instead of saying this, he chose to use indirect means to communicate with the pilot, yet the pilot could not understand him in those circumstances. These inactions caused the plane to crash into a hill. JETRO (8) explains that a “subordinate is expected to trust his or her manager’s judgment and not question his or her decisions”. Consequently, they only asked him questions about his opinion on the issue.

None of them recommended straight forward actions. The high PDI (Power distance index) culture was detrimental to the lives of the passengers in the flight. It was incidences like these that created a poor corporate image for the firm and made it loose some of its most valued clientele.

Furthermore, the company’s finances were in jeopardy because fewer clients were willing to use their planes. Korean Air could have prevented these challenges if it had dealt with the high PDI problem from the onset.

Perhaps another reason, of less importance may have led to the crashes. The organization acted as a barrier to communication. It had poor communication policies, which emphasized a foreign language- English. Additionally no mechanisms were in place to ensure that subordinates openly tell their pilots everything (Kujal 55). These were all cultural problems in the institution.

Miscommunication has also led to dire consequences in the business world, as well. A case in point was the alliance between Japan-based Nissan and French-based Renault. The two companies decided to come together to do business in a relatively unconventional manner. They needed each other for survival (Susini 239).

They decided to maintain their autonomy and corporate cultures but still work together in various aspects of business. At one point, the firms needed to share components between each other; this became one of their projects. The major problem with this approach was that either company could have parts that experience delays or problems in performance (Susini 253).

Expectations for performance were different in both organizations. At Renault, cooling systems needed to be silent and had a high rate of flow. Conversely, cooling systems needed to possess a low flow rate in Japan. Additionally, the spaces in which the systems were to be installed were quite different.

The concerned teams needed to adhere to certain protocols when using the component parts and these were sometimes difficult to explain. The two organizations had a lot of difficulties in merging these requirements. They eventually abandoned the project due to harmonization challenges.

Unlike Susini (255) who argues that the spare-part project was mainly hampered by “technical difficulties”, Treece (55) explains that business miscommunication led to project failure. The complications between members of staff in both organizations were created by cross cultural differences. Individuals from Japanese culture are collectivist while the French are individualistic.

In Nissan, people used group think to make decisions. It is likely that this issue led to miscommunication between the two parties. Most Nissan employees kept sending ambiguous part specifications to their counterparts, and this frustrated the Frenchmen. Renault seniors regularly complained that it was rather difficult to reach any consensus with Nissan representatives (Treece 57).

Furthermore, when the head of the project was looking for new ideas about harmonizing the project, Nissan employees rarely gave differing input. Their ideas were almost synchronized, so the project manager wondered why he could not get fresh input from them. It is likely that this problem came from the collectivist nature of the Japanese. They tend to favor groupthink and will create groups that think in the same manner (JETRO 10).

Information miscommunication occurred because Nissan employees told the Renault project manager what they had agreed on, yet the manager expected to get independent ideas from all project members. This mismatch between the sender’s expectations and the receivers’ perceptions brought a rift between the two organizations.

When a problem arose during the spare parts project, few if any Nissan employees took responsibility for the predicament. In fact, Renault seniors realized that shifting blame was rather common in this organization. The Japanese are a relatively homogenous group and they use a system called ‘ringi’ to make decisions. In ‘ringi’, an “idea is suggested and taken around to all the people who will be affected by it” (JETRO 10).

When a person receives a document containing the idea, they will make a few adjustments and pass it to the next employee. After passing through all the stakeholders, the final decision will be reached and this will give members a sense of ownership.

The major problem with this approach is no single person will be held responsible for the decision (JETRO 11). While Nissan employees did not use the ‘ringi’ system directly during the spare parts project, they still used the same approach in deciding things.

As a result, no one was to blame for shortcomings and unwanted results. The Japanese kept shifting blame from one department to another, which was very frustrating for the French team. It is likely that this problem also led to project failure.

Harney (16) disagrees with the above authors by claiming that language problems between the two groups led to project failure. If a spare part needed to be attached safely to a fuel tank, the French had difficulties in translating this requirement to Japanese.

Although the companies hired translators for this purpose, it was clear that some meanings were lost in translation (Harney 14). Information miscommunication is bound to arise when language barriers exist. Additionally, many of these problems were compounded by the technical language used in automobile manufacture.


Power distance and miscommunication can lead to dire business consequences as seen through the two case studies. In one scenario, high power distance caused a series of aircraft disasters in Korean Air. This company lost lives, experienced financial losses, lost partnerships, and even tarnished its brand image.

All these problems stemmed from high power distance and lack of openness between a captain and his subordinates. In the second case, information miscommunication led to diminished employee morale, project failure, and financial losses.

Differences in communication expectations and reality emanated from intercultural differences between Japan-based Nissan and French-based Renault. Businesses that want to avoid such consequences should work on communication and power distance issues among their stakeholders.

Works Cited

Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. Print.

Griffin, Walter & Mickey Pustay. International Business. NY: Pearson-Prentice, 2005. Print.

Harney, Arnold. “Restructuring Gives Japan’s Workers Culture Shock.” Financial Times 2 Nov. 1999: 14. Print.

Hofstede, Geert. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations across Nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2001. Print.

JETRO. Communicating with Japanese in Business. 1999. Web. Http://Www.Jetro.Go.Jp/Costarica/Mercadeo/Communicationwith.Pdf

Kujal, Sri. Business Communication. Delhi: Vaibhav Printers, 2009. Print.

Susini, Pamela. “The Determinants of Alliance Performance: Case Study of Renault and Nissan Alliance.” Economic Journal of Hokkaido 33(2003): 233-262. Print.

Treece, James. “Ghosn To GM.” Automotive News Europe 11.20(2006): 55. Print.

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