Across the pond

Cultural considerations for global motivation success

Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP, Vice President, Business Development at O.C. Tanner


Organisational growth – and the growth and development of leaders – now often involves an international component.  Healthy percentages of employees in multinational companies work outside their home country with local employees who come to work each day with very different cultural norms and beliefs.  If you’re running – or contemplating – a motivation programme outside your borders, you’d be well served to fully understand those cultural values and beliefs. However, you don’t have to venture past your own borders to be faced with this issue – increasingly diverse domestic workforces require us to be fluent in cultural nuances if we expect to fully engage our employees and optimise our motivation results. 

Cultural context may be more pronounced in its home country, but employees everywhere are highly sensitive to missteps that pertain to their cultural beliefs. By improving our awareness and understanding of cultural differences and how culture impacts behaviour, we show respect for motivation programme participants, improve programme performance, and may even decrease programme costs by avoiding problems. 

Here are a few of the most compelling cultural contrasts and how to address them effectively.

Some countries have a self-oriented culture. It’s common and perfectly acceptable to measure and reward individual performance or achievements, and contests and incentives are rampant. Managers routinely provide feedback on both positive and negative aspects of an employee’s performance. Recognition is often given publicly, and a myriad of scoreboards and tracking tools are utilised so individuals and teams can measure their performance against their goals,or in comparison to other groups. In self-oriented cultures, it’s believed that performance expectations should be established and the same rules and standards should apply to all participants in motivation programmes.

To be most effective, programme goals, rules, and expectations should be clearly articulated and communicated widely to avoid any confusion or misunderstanding for participants. However, 80% of the world’s cultures are group-oriented, supporting the group’s interests before the individual’s because a person’s identity is determined by group membership, not by their individual qualities. These cultures believe results require a collective effort and work is frequently assigned to teams, so rewarding only one member of a team would actually demotivate that person, destroy the team’s effectiveness, and defeat the purpose of your motivation programme. Awards must include the entire team to be most effective.

In a similar vein, inner-directed cultures believe results follow the application of individual skill sets and the effort put forth. People control their own destiny and should be held accountable for their actions and results. Outer-directed cultures believe the individual is not fully in control of their destiny and that fortune, religion, or other external factors have predestined results. A significant portion of the global population holds this belief and it’s difficult to establish causation for either exceptional or poor performance, or to tie rewards to a measure of individual contribution.
In cultures with a short-term focus, an award with an immediate pay-off would be a powerful motivator. In other cultures with a longer-term focus, future skills training or the delayed gratification of an awards celebration at the end of the year would be well received.
When hierarchy and authority are prominent and revered, it’s a sign of a high power difference culture. Employees there wouldn’t expect to participate in establishing performance goals, evaluating programme results, or having a voice in award selections. These would be standard expectations for their colleagues in low power difference cultures where employees often actively participate in the design and execution of the motivation programme and can be quite verbal when setting goals and providing ongoing feedback.

The cultural predisposition for either ascribed or achieved status is often found to mirror cultures of high or low power difference, respectively. Achieved status affords the opportunity for everyone to gain status through a unique triumph or a lifetime of accomplishments and stellar performances. Individuals in these cultures will expect that recognition and rewards will be granted to those who have earned them by accomplishing the goals that were established and understood by everyone.

Learn More
I invite you to join me at Motivate Europe Live where I’ll be presenting ‘Essential Global Recognition & Engagement Insights’. I’ll be showcasing new and detailed motivation insights and best practices from an exhaustive three-year formal global research study of motivation programme best practices in 14 countries. If you have a multicultural workforce and/or an international motivation programme (or are thinking of developing one) you need to attend this session.

Latest across the pond