How to use Power Distance to Improve Community | Part 2

This 3-part blog series follows a talk that I gave in July 2022 for CMX Connect Denver! The talk was about improving the way that you foster peer-to-peer conversations as a community facilitator by using the below 3 concepts! Click here to watch the full workshop!

The Challenge presented to us by Keystone Symposia: 1. Convert 65 events. 2. Keep the same dates & Times. 3. There's only 7 Net-skilled employees. 4. Train the rest of the company to help in 4 weeks.
Keystone Symposia provided us a pretty tall order…

For my prior community marketing role at Keystone Symposia, a 50-year-old nonprofit that planned and executed over 65 physical events globally, Covid presented a huge problem.

When Covid hit, we had to convert all 65 physical events into fully-functioning virtual environments. They had to include peer-to-peer networking, and events had to nail community interaction if biological scientists were ever to trust virtual events post-pandemic.

But, with only 1 trained community professional and only 8 virtual event-savvy employees, how would we run 4 events every week and still give our scientific audience a fantastic community experience?

The answer was to teach our physical events staff the bare minimum—3 chief things that they needed to facilitate and encourage interaction among chat and forum channels. I had only 1 week to teach people what to do, 1 event to have them observe me facilitating, and 1 event for them to take the reigns.

By week 4, I had successfully trained facilitators capable of embodying a truly-collaborative experience for our “industry-leading collaborative virtual events.”

In this blog series, I’m diving deeper into each part of this talk to break these critical concepts down. My goal is to make you and your team great community facilitators. With these skills, you can quickly skyrocket your event satisfaction ratings and infinitely scale your community events by training new facilitators reliably.

what we taught Our community facilitators

  1. Part 1: Set a precedent and then build momentum.
  2. Part 2: Understand and manipulate power distance.
  3. Part 3: Forge better conversation by encouraging opinion.

In This Blog

What is Power Distance?

Communicative Power Distance is a part of Structuration Theory - by Geert Hofstede. The percieved extent and effect of power distribution among a group of people.

Power Distance is a term initially coined by Geer Hofstede in his theory of societal structures’ impact on human behavior, it is defined as “The perceived extent & effect of power distribution among a group of people.

There are 3-central tenets to the theory to care about as a community manager.

  • Mitigation vs. Candor
    People change their words, their approach to conversation, or how they spread information based on the perceived power the listener has over them. If it’s too high, people might mitigate it, confusing. If it’s low, people may be very candid and present problems in the workforce.
  • Collectivistic vs. Individualistic Culture
    Collectivistic (china and japan) and Individualistic cultures (America & the UK) respond differently to power dynamics because we are raised based on what is expected of us. In individualistic cultures, power distance is generally low because people feel comfortable speaking their minds. In Collectivistic cultures, it is harder to usurp the boundary.
  • Structured Vs. Unstructured (Grapevine) Communication
    Structured Communication within an organization or a community has a direct impact and effect on how we communicate with our peers.

In short, power distance is why safe spaces actually matter. Power distance is why people don’t feel comfortable talking to their boss about a problem at work, or why the lone token-black person in a room is usually the most silent even though they are probably the most prized voice. Power distance is why the CEO’s suggestion box isn’t working, and why the public speaker isn’t heckled 90 billion times.

Understanding power distance has a LOT of advantages for community facilitation:

Increase Power Distance to

  • Better enforce community guidelines
  • Establish authority in the community
  • Control troll and illicit activity
  • Separate marketing/ads from Community
  • Create a more cohesive community brand

Decrease Power distance to

  • Create safer spaces for belonging
  • Improve peer-to-peer connections
  • Mediate emotional turmoil
  • Solve trans-cultural clashes
  • Build cohesive social glue

Further, power distance is also insanely useful for analytics and understanding your community.

The spiral of silence theory is an infographic that explains why people stop discussing things that are not going to go well. It starts with a pervailing public opinion that presures a willingness to speak out. Over time and with continued attempts that user becomes less and less likely to voice opinion out of fear of isolation.
Spiral of Silence Model (Aryal, 2014; Noelle-Neumann, 1993).

Let’s have an example of Power Distance

Let’s tell the story of Ussaine Nuttin (shush. I’m clever).

Ussaine Used to contribute tons when he was new to the community, but he is now suspiciously silent. He’s slipped from being an active and engaged newcomer to a lurker. He’s struggling to contribute, and you’d like to interview them.

On a cursory glance, his contributions look like Ussaine spent a lot of time in the FAQs channel but slid back to social media on your Community Relationship System (shameless plug for Common Room ;D)

However, after interviewing him, he stated that he had never lost interest. He just had a terrible time and didn’t like his community experience.

He elaborates that the other users he viewed as mentors and veterans quickly became untouchable experts. When posting questions, they frequently berated him for asking questions in the wrong places or provided links to confusing and incomplete Wikipedia for your product as if that was a suitable answer to his problems.

That is highly valuable feedback.

This is called the Spiral of Silence, wherein an individual’s perception of the distribution of public opinion influences that individual’s willingness to express their own political opinions.

The users had a higher power distance of veteran status and expertise with the community’s software, and as a newcomer, he struggled to get over a knowledge hurdle. Power distance skyrocketed, and you never knew.

Once you build a tactic to intervene, like asking veterans to elaborate on their responses in the FAQ chat when you notice they’re a tad curt or silent, and championing veterans to build better Wikipedia content, you’ll start to look at Ussaine’s dwindling contributions from a totally new light. Your power users may not know they were the problem. Now you do and can do something about it.

Interviewing your users with a lens of power distance is very helpful for finding socio-cultural problems in the community, but Power distance is also scalable.

Power distance also involves organizational communication and red tape. Structured communication is by definition higher in power distance than unstructured communication. If you’re struggling to get survey responses, feedback, or interaction, consider creating an unstructured grapevine event like a bar crawl with your community members or a “party” event where there is no structured focus.

You’ll find a change of space to somewhere with less power distance the ,tight-lipped a little less so. This also goes for private conversations. DM people and they feel a greater expectation, and greater importance, in responding.

The great ideas always happen at the bar. Employees can’t speak to their bosses directly. Human resources is about giving the little guy a voice.

All examples of power distance in the organizational setting.

Community Facilitator Tactics that User Power Distance

Power distance is absurdly helpful in controlling and manipulating the flow of community interaction.

In live events, for instance, you can encourage people to talk AND move them on to different topics using emojis to represent specific kinds of messages.

As we discussed in Part 1: setting precedent and building momentum, you can quickly tell people at the start that as a moderator you’ll be using an emoji (🔊) for admin announcements.

Then simple don’t use the emoticon when engaging with the community. Now you have two separate channels that sound very different and community members know very well which ones are more or less welcoming, which ones to pay attention to, and which ones they can be a bit cheeky with.

On Community forums this also allows you to divide community roles and reinforce boundaries.

When trolls step in and you have to get that big firm voice going, it may help to have a “moderator” tag under your name, or have a specific color demonstrating your status. Immediately that skyrockets power distance and over time, you will build momentum for a sense of authority in the community. People will start to tag you in problems more often.

Another use in community forums is when using shorter curt language that immediately stunts a conversation. If used well though it can also generate crazy amounts of hype by moving people in to one direction. We will discuss this more in-depth for part 3 – asking better questions, but just know that closed questions that elicit simple responses often have a higher power distance and open questions invite greater communication.

The Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game or MMORPG, Guild Wars 2 uses a proximity/level system to divide chats, but still displays them in one stream as a singular color-coded conversation. To switch between each keyboard shortcuts divide actions and filters provide engagement customizations.

Just be careful with losing or abusing power distance, though!

It is unfortunately common for community stakeholders who are looking to impose or create structure in their communities, to unknowingly produce silence because their power distance is too big. One of the go-to examples of this is when you are advertising too much to your community or using organizational language more often than you should.

You should seek to have empathetic and low-power distance conversations with your community at least 80% of the time.

a few Tactics for using power distance

  1. Create different voices for structured and unstructured (grapevine) communication
  2. Explicitly plan for and architect grapevine conversation for users
  3. Have a clear user guidelines policy that allows you to reinforce rules and point to it
  4. Nudge your power users when they forget what it’s like to be new,
  5. Champion the added contributions of newcomers who are excelling at work.
  6. Use emojis, organic conversation, slang, and other words to lower power distance
  7. Label or color-code your own contributions with Q:, A:, an emoji (🙏), colors, or the like.

So, With that all in mind, next week – Let’s actually facilitate and force some incredible conversations!

Be sure to join our mailing list to be notified of the next blog in this series!

Watch the full CMX Talk on Socially Constructed Online’s Youtube Channel!

Venia will show you how to: Set precedents and then build Momentum, Understand and manipulate power distance Forge conversation through strong opinion …so you can train and host amazing conversations with your communities!

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Venia Logan

I’ve spent the past 9 years learning the diverse skills necessary to create strong stable online communities that put your brand’s services at their center. ​​I started my own YouTube channel in 2010, and RESCQU.NET in 2013. I worked for Constant Contact, and returned to college for a specialization in online community management. Then I attained all 12 certifications from DigitalMarketer and helped dozens of communities. Spend fewer resources advertising to cold contacts or buying paid media and get back to focusing on what you love by growing a community that is financially and socially rewarding for you.