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Power distance orientation and employee help seeking: trust in supervisor as a mediator.

In China, driven by an economy based on the production, exchange, and utilization of knowledge and information, jobs have become increasingly complex, interconnected, and team-orientated in firms (Cleavenger, Gardner, & Mhatre, 2007). In this environment, facilitating interaction in the workplace is important for team and organizational effectiveness. Scholars have paid extensive attention to employees helping others, which even gives the impression that the recipients of help are regarded as passive agents (Bamberger, 2009). However, in several studies, researchers suggest that approximately 90% of helping interactions reported by managers were initiated by someone seeking help and that helping relationships commonly began with help seeking (e.g., Burke, Weir, & Duncan, 1976). Lee (1997), Nadler, Ellis, and Bar (2003), and Bamberger (2009) all found that employee help seeking was beneficial to individual and team performance, employee well-being, and the sustainable development of organization.

Employee help seeking has been defined as an interpersonal process of seeking instrumental and emotional help from colleagues for solving problems at or outside work (Bamberger, 2009). Typically, on the basis of content, a distinction can be made between two different types of help seeking, namely, instrumental help seeking, which involves the solicitation of assistance that is more tangible in nature and directly associated with the fulfillment of job requirements and responsibilities, and emotional help seeking, which involves the solicitation of assistance that is nontangible and more personal in nature, and is often related to the resolution of relationship problems or issues. Though previous researchers have argued that employees are more willing to seek help from their supervisors rather than their peers (Ashford & Tsui, 1991; Nadler et al., 2003), the focus in these studies was primarily on the effect of the ability or expertise of the supervisors. Little research has been conducted to examine the influence of other attributes of supervisors on employee help seeking. Power distance is one cultural value that is fundamental to the supervisor-subordinate relationship (Daniels & Greguras, 2014). Power distance refers to the degree to which individuals, groups, or societies accept inequalities (Hofstede, 1980). At the individual level, Kirkman, Chen, Farh, Chen, and Lowe (2009) used the term power distance orientation to distinguish it from power distance at the macro level. Khatri (2009) noted that although power distance influences employee behaviors and organizational processes, it has attracted relatively much less attention from researchers. Especially, little is known about why and how the power distance orientation of a supervisor affects his or her subordinates' behavior in terms of seeking help from him/her. In this study, we examined the relationship between supervisors' power distance orientation and employee help-seeking behavior. Furthermore, subordinates' trust in their supervisor has been deemed to play a mediating role in the relationships among some organizational variables (Yang, Mossholder, & Peng, 2009). Our aim was also to study whether or not subordinates' trust in their supervisor mediated the effect of power distance orientation on the subordinates' help seeking, based on the integrated multilevel framework for trust in leadership proposed by Burke, Sims, Lazzara, and Salas (2007).

Development of Hypotheses

Power Distance Orientation and Employee Help Seeking

Supervisors' power distance orientation can influence their leadership style and, thereby, their subordinates' expectations. Supervisors with a high power distance orientation prefer a type of power and a hierarchy that differentiate them from their subordinates, and they lead autocratically (Kirkman et al., 2009). They usually grasp the right of resource allocation, rewards, and punishment (Lee, 1997). Under these conditions, subordinates must be more sensitive to power discrepancy and must be cautious when interacting with their supervisors. Seeking help from their supervisors means that they exhibit their incompetence or weaknesses to their supervisors, which puts them at a disadvantageous position. Especially when they encounter some intractable problems that supervisors are also unable to deal with, supervisors may consider subordinates' help seeking to be a challenge to their ability and power, or even as a source of shame to them (Lee, 2002). Hofstede (1980) argued that individuals with power are seen as inaccessible. To some extent, this climate reinforces subordinates' expectation that they will not get effective help from their supervisors. Furthermore, supervisors with a high power distance orientation are more task-orientated and less people-orientated than are supervisors with a low power distance orientation (Bochner & Hesketh, 1994). Thus, the supervisor-subordinate relationship is confined to just their daily work, which leads to a lack of communication outside the job (Madlock, 2012). Conversely, supervisors with a low power distance orientation may emphasize mutual equality, but ignore power discrepancy, which is good for active supervisor-subordinate communication and good relationships. Consequently, subordinates will not worry about the potentially negative effect stemming from seeking help from their supervisors. Therefore, we formed the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1a: A supervisor's power distance orientation will be negatively related to subordinates' instrumental help seeking.

Hypothesis 1b: A supervisor's power distance orientation will be negatively related to subordinates' emotional help seeking.

Mediating Role of Trust in Supervisor

In the integrated multilevel framework for trust in leadership, it is claimed that the leader's characteristics can impact trust in leadership and, thus, affect followers' behavior (Burke et al., 2007). Accordingly, as a salient characteristic, supervisor power distance orientation may have an effect on subordinate trust in supervisor and this, then, influences subordinates' behaviors, including help seeking. Trust in supervisor is defined as the subordinates' willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of supervisor, based on the subordinates' positive expectations. Drawing from McAllister's (1995) view of interpersonal trust, trust in supervisor is characterized by two dimensions--cognition-based trust, referring to an intention by the subordinates to believe in the supervisor's ability, reliability, and integrity, and affect-based trust, referring to a special relationship of the subordinates with the supervisor on the basis of mutual concerns.

Because supervisors with high distance orientation are more task-orientated and power-orientated than are those with low power distance orientation (Bochner & Hesketh, 1994), subordinates are absorbed in their responsibilities and passively submissive to the predesignated goals and tasks (Daniels & Greguras, 2014). As such, subordinates may try to avoid interacting with their supervisor and, gradually, a sense of fear about communicating with the supervisor may be generated among the subordinates, which impedes the development of trust in the supervisor. However, those supervisors with a low power distance orientation will not accentuate the power discrepancy and this is conducive to the frequent supervisor-subordinate interaction that is necessary for the fulfillment of supervisors' responsibilities (Daniels & Greguras, 2014). As supervisor-subordinate interaction increases, the supervisor's ability and integrity become well known by his/her subordinates, which leads to the subordinates having a high degree of trust in their supervisor (Burke et al., 2007). In particular, subordinates are empowered by supervisors with a low power distance orientation, which gives those subordinates the feeling that they are granted great respect by their supervisor. Accordingly, they will be more likely to develop a high level of identification with the supervisor's ability and a close relationship will develop between them. In summary, we formed the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 2a: A supervisor's power distance orientation will be negatively related to subordinates' cognition-based trust in their supervisor.

Hypothesis 2b: A supervisor's power distance orientation will be negatively related to subordinates' affect-based trust in their supervisor.

Hofmann, Lei, and Grant (2009) noted that employees were more willing to ask for help from those people that they considered to be competent. Subordinates with high cognition-based trust in their supervisor maintain that the supervisor has the ability to help them solve job-related problems and these subordinates find it easier to believe in the correctness of decisions, directives, and advice delivered by the supervisor (Yang et al., 2009). When subordinates have a high level of cognition-based trust in their supervisor, this may eliminate some of the fear and anxiety of the subordinates. Under these conditions, subordinates can concentrate their efforts on work and can be active in seeking help from their supervisor when encountering problems, including personal issues (Mayer & Gavin, 2005). On the other hand, a possible reason for a low level of affect-based trust in the supervisor may be that subordinates think that their supervisor would take advantage of them and would seek to look after his or her personal interests (Chen, Eberly, Chiang, Farh, & Chen, 2011). Thus, subordinates are reluctant to express new ideas and share their difficulties and problems with their supervisors. Moreover, having a high level of affect-based trust in their supervisor gives subordinates an environment in which they will not be hurt or punished when seeking help with potential problems from their supervisors. Therefore, we developed the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 3a: Subordinates' cognition-based trust in their supervisor will mediate the relationship between the supervisor's power distance orientation and employee instrumental help seeking.

Hypothesis 3b: Subordinates' cognition-based trust in their supervisor will mediate the relationship between the supervisor's power distance orientation and subordinates' emotional help seeking.

Hypothesis 3c: Subordinates' affect-based trust in their supervisor will mediate the relationship between the supervisor's power distance orientation and subordinates' instrumental help seeking.

Hypothesis 3d: Subordinates' affect-based trust in their supervisor will mediate the relationship between the supervisor's power distance orientation and subordinates' emotional help seeking.



We collected data from subordinates and supervisors of four state-owned firms, five private firms, and three foreign-invested firms based in Hubei, Jiangsu, Guangdong, Zhejiang, and Shanxi provinces in eastern, central, and western China. We chose to collect data from these different types of firm and in these different locations because previous researchers have argued that power distance differs according to different levels of economic development and type of ownership (Cai, 2001; Liao, Zhao, & Zhang, 2010). The industries in which the firms in the sample were involved comprised telecommunications, electronics, real estate, manufacturing, and service. The scales and questionnaires we used were adopted from existing measures developed in the English language and then translated into Chinese versions. In order to ensure the accuracy of the translated versions, we asked several scholars with PhD qualifications in foreign language to back-translate the Chinese versions into English to check the consistency of the two versions. We conducted the survey using a supervisor-subordinate dyad design to avoid common method bias. The sample comprised 97 supervisors and 408 subordinates. On average, each supervisor was in charge of between three and seven subordinates. Supervisors were asked to self-report their power distance orientation, employee help seeking, altruism, agreeableness, and extraversion. Subordinates reported their trust in their supervisor and their need for achievement. After eliminating those forms with missing data, six successive items with the same answers, and those from any supervisor with three or fewer subordinates, we received 73 valid response forms from supervisors and 311 valid response forms from subordinates. The statistical characteristics of subordinates were as follows: 60.1% were men, 39.9% were women, 9.7% were aged under 23 years, 85.5% were aged between 23 and 28 years, 4.2% were aged over 28 years, 79.4% had graduate degrees, 17.7% had bachelor's degrees, 2.9% had master's degrees, 54.8% worked in private firms, 23.8% worked in state-owned firms, and 21.4% worked in foreign-invested firms. Regarding job tenure, the mean (SD) was 2.42 years (0.49) and 53.5% had been in their current position since their graduation from university. The means (SD) of supervisors' age and tenure were, respectively, 37.92 years (3.18) and 6.33 years (1.24).


Power distance orientation. We used the six-item scale developed by Dorfman and Howell (1988) to measure power distance orientation, reflecting the supervisor's attitude to power. The Cronbach's alpha in this study was .81.

Trust in supervisor. Trust in supervisor was measured with an adaptation of the 10-item scale of interpersonal trust that was developed by McAllister (1995). The coefficient alphas for cognition-based and affect-based trust in this study were .82 and .83, respectively.

Employee help seeking. We developed a special scale for the measurement of employee help seeking based on an open-ended questionnaire and the study conducted by Anderson and Williams (1996). At first, we drafted 11 items and then asked three people with the academic qualification of Doctorate in Business Management to identify concepts and adapt sentences. Through exploratory factor analysis, we extracted two factors (instrumental help seeking and emotional help seeking), which explained 66.88% of the total variance. According to a component matrix, we dropped three items for which the factor load was either below 0.4 or above 0.6 and this left the following eight items: "This person often asks me to assist him/her with certain tasks," "Oftentimes, this person will approach me for advice on handling job-related problems," "This person frequently asks me for needed information, help, finance, and so on to complete a task," "This person requests my help when he/she gets behind in his/her duties," "Oftentimes, this person seeks my help or suggestions when he/ she is in interpersonal conflict with others," "This person seeks my help when he/she has difficulties in their personal life," "This person often asks me for suggestions about his/her food, clothing, housing, and so on," and "Oftentimes, this person asks me to help him/her cope with personal affairs." Via confirmatory factor analysis, the indices of goodness-of-fit according to comparative fit index (CFI), normed fit index (NFI), incremental fit index (IFI), and root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA), for the two-factor model were as follows: chi square/degrees of freedom ([chi square]/df = 4.39, p < .05, CFI = .88, NFI = .84, IFI = .88, RMSEA = .07, which indicated a good fit. The coefficient alphas were .84 and .81 respectively.

Control variables. Previous researchers have shown that gender, need for achievement, and the agreeableness, extraversion, and altruism of the trusted person were all associated with help-seeking behavior (Galdas, Cheater, & Marshall, 2005; Lee, 1997). Consequently, we controlled subordinates' gender and need for achievement at the individual level, and supervisors' agreeableness, extraversion, and altruism at the group level. We used the six-item scale developed by Helmreich and Spence (1978) to measure need for achievement. The measure of agreeableness and extraversion was drawn from Big Five Inventory (Goldberg, 1999). Altruism was measured with the four-item scale developed by Farh, Earley, and Lin (1997).


Because the main variables were at different levels, we used hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) to test our hypotheses. First, we used HLM to construct a series of null models and then examined the significance level of residual variance at level 2, including in-group variance [[tau].sub.00] and between-group variance intraclass correlation coefficient 1 (ICC1). The results were as follows: instrumental help seeking, [[tau].sub.00] = 0.23, [[sigma].sup.2] = 0.45, ICC1 = 0.31; emotional help seeking, [[tau].sub.00] = 0.22, [[sigma].sup.2] = 0.42, ICC1 = 0.35; cognition-based trust, [[tau].sub.00] = 0.17, [[sigma].sup.2] = 0.41, ICC1 = 0.29; affect-based trust, [[tau].sub.00] = 0.16, [[sigma].sup.2] = 0.40, ICC1 = 0.29, indicating that the HLM was suitable for subsequent analyses.

The HLM results to test the hypotheses are presented in Table 1. Power distance orientation negatively influenced subordinates' instrumental help seeking and emotional help seeking in M1 and M7, which supported H1a and H1b. When controlling for the same variables, power distance orientation was negatively associated with cognition-based trust and with affect-based trust in M2 and M3. Thus, H2a and H2b were also supported. In order to examine the mediating effect of trust in one's supervisor, we followed the three-step procedure for mediation proposed by Baron and Kenny (1986). Through M1, M2, and M3, we confirmed the main effects of power distance orientation on instrumental help seeking and trust in supervisor. The results of M4 and M5 revealed that the strength of the relationship between power distance orientation and instrumental help seeking was reduced when controlling for cognition-based and affect-based trust, respectively, indicating that cognition-based and affect-based trust served as mediators. H3a and H3c were, therefore, supported. For emotional help seeking, the results of M8 and M9 showed that the effect of power distance orientation on emotional help seeking did not change relative to M7 after controlling for cognition-based trust, but when controlling for affect-based trust, the strength of the relationship between power distance orientation and emotional help seeking was reduced, indicating that affect-based trust mediated the relationship between power distance orientation and emotional help seeking. Thus, only H3d was supported.

To further explore whether or not cognition-based trust and affect-based trust together would fully mediate the effect of power distance orientation on employee help seeking, we put these variables together with other control variables in the same model. In M1 and M7, M6 and M10, the results showed that the effect of power distance orientation on instrumental help seeking was no longer significant but its effect on emotional help seeking remained significant. Therefore trust in supervisor fully mediated the relationship between power distance orientation and instrumental help seeking, but partially mediated the effect of power distance orientation on emotional help seeking. Additionally, the effect of affect-based trust on help seeking was stronger than that of cognition-based trust from M6 and M10.


Theoretical Contributions

The statistical analysis revealed the negative effect of power distance orientation on help seeking among the employees in our sample. Supervisors' power distance orientation will influence affect-based trust in one's supervisor and result in employee instrumental and emotional help seeking, but cognition-based trust in supervisor only mediates the effect of power distance orientation on instrumental help seeking. Our findings extend the research on employee help-seeking behavior and employee trust in their supervisor.

First, we identified power distance orientation as another leader attribute that is an important predictor of employee help-seeking behavior. In prior research on employee help seeking, scholars have considered leaders' attributes, such as ability and status, to be related to employee help-seeking behavior, but they paid no attention to the role of cultural values. Although scholars have found leaders' power distance orientation was associated with employee behaviors, the relationship between power distance orientation and employee help seeking has attracted little attention. It is helpful to respond to this gap in the research.

Second, we confirmed trust as a key mediator in the process of leader--member interaction with empirical evidence, which provides valuable insight into employee behaviors for subsequent research. Burke et al. (2007) proposed an integrated multilevel framework for trust in leadership based on normative analysis but they did not implement an empirical test. On the other hand, Kirkman et al. (2009) specifically raised the point that more effort should be put into identifying other factors acting as mediators between power distance and employee behaviors. We have not only tested the viability of the framework for trust in leadership but we also echo the call from Kirkman et al.. Moreover, we found that affect-based trust had a greater impact than did cognition-based trust, which is consistent with the finding reported by McAllister (1995).

Practical Implications

Our findings can aid supervisors in providing a more supportive environment in which employees can perform best in their roles. On one hand, help seeking is essential for individual and organizational development. A healthy organization should keep the mechanism of help seeking smooth, and the supervisor is the basic link in this mechanism. Supervisors should emphasize the subtle effect of power distance orientation, a high level of which results in employees' low trust in their supervisor and hinders help seeking, and try to avoid the mindset that power is supreme and that autocratic leadership is the condition under which necessary help seeking occurs. In particular, we discovered that affect-based trust mediated the effect of power distance orientation on the two forms of employee help seeking and that affect-based trust is more important than cognition-based trust as it influences both instrumental and emotional help seeking. This enlightens supervisors that they should pay more attention to developing subordinates' affect-based trust. On the other hand, organizational trust is the most economic, effective, and direct approach to enhancing organizational effectiveness (Gibb, 1978). Supervisors' level of power distance orientation has a negative impact on supervisor-subordinate trust development. Consequently, supervisors should nurture their values about power and control their power aspiration so as to build good supervisor-subordinate trust. Finally, the scale we developed for measuring help seeking would provide a beneficial tool for future research on employee help seeking in a Chinese context.

Limitations and Future Directions

Although our results are instructive, there are three main limitations. First, although we used a dyad design, power distance orientation and employee help seeking were both reported by supervisors, so there may still be common method bias. To avoid this problem, subsequent researchers may use diverse methods of measurement, such as combining supervisor self-report and subordinate self-report, or collecting longitudinal data. Second, in view of employees transferring to other departments or leaving, resource restrictions, and to lessen the workload of our research, we collected only cross-sectional data, which do not allow for examination of causal relationships among variables. Future researchers should collect longitudinal data. Additionally, the boundary conditions should be explored. According to the theory of leader-follower values congruence, the follower's values and personality may moderate the existing relationship.


Huazhong University of Science and Technology


Wuchang University of Technology


Zhengzhou University of Light Industry

Yang Ji and Erhua Zhou, School of Management, Huazhong University of Science and Technology; Caiyun Li, Business College, Wuchang University of Technology; Yanling Yan, School of Economics and Management, Zhengzhou University of Light Industry.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Erhua Zhou, School of Management, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan 430074, People's Republic of China. Email:


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Table 1. Hierarchical Linear Modeling Results

Variable                     Instrumental help seeking (IH)

                        Ml        M2        M3        M4        M5
                        IH        CT        AT        IH        IH

Intercept              3.43**    3.55**    3.60**    3.47**    3.49**
Power distance        -0.15*    -0.11*    -0.13*    -0.14*    -0.13*
Altruism               0.18**    0.11*     0.12*     0.17**    0.17**
Agreeableness          0.14*     0.08      0.09      0.14*     0.14*
Extraversion           0.05      0.06      0.06      0.05      0.05
Gender                -0.14*    -0.12*    -0.14*    -0.12*    -0.13*
Need for               0.11*     0.05      0.04      0.10*     0.09
Cognition-based                                      0.19**
  trust (CT)
Affect-based trust                                             0.21**
Within-group           0.35      0.30      0.28      0.35      0.35
Between-groups         0.14      0.14      0.14      0.10      0.09
[R.sup.2.sub.wg]       0.21      0.28      0.29      0.22      0.21
[]       0.41      0.18      0.14      0.56      0.60
[]    0.27**    0.25**    0.24**    0.32**    0.33**

Variable                       Emotional help seeking (EH)

                        M6        M7        M8        M9        M10
                        IH        EH        EH        EH        EH

Intercept              3.52**    3.51**    3.53**    3.53**    3.55**
Power distance        -0.09     -0.15**   -0.15**   -0.14*    -0.14*
Altruism               0.17**    0.12*     0.11*     0.11*     0.11*
Agreeableness          0.14*     0.11*     0.10*     0.10*     0.11*
Extraversion           0.04      0.04      0.03      0.04      0.04
Gender                -0.12*    -0.13*    -0.13*    -0.13*    -0.13*
Need for               0.09      0.09      0.09      0.09      0.08
Cognition-based        0.20**              0.09                0.09
  trust (CT)
Affect-based trust     0.22**                        0.23**    0.24**
Within-group           0.34      0.33      0.32      0.31      0.30
Between-groups         0.09      0.15      0.15      0.13      0.13
[R.sup.2.sub.wg]       0.23      0.22      0.24      0.25      0.27
[]       0.63      0.32      0.34      0.41      0.42
[]    0.36**    0.26**    0.28**    0.31**    0.32**

Note. [] = [R.sup.2.sub.wg] x (1-ICC1) +
[] x ICC1. [R.sup.2.sub.wg] is the proportion of
within-group variance explained by the model specification as
compared with the null model; [] is the proportion of
between-group variance explained by the model specification as
compared with the null model; ICC1 was calculated as [[tau].sub.00]/
([[tau].sub.00] + [[sigma].sup.2]); * p < .05, ** p < .01.
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Author:Ji, Yang; Zhou, Erhua; Li, Caiyun; Yan, Yanling
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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