Motivation in Different Cultures

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss the impact of cultural differences on motivation

A warning for managers everywhere—motivation theories are culture-bound.

decorative imageThe theories you’ve read about have been developed by American psychologists and scientists for the American workplace, and the behaviors suggested are dictated by the American culture. Managers working for international companies who have remote international teams may find it difficult to apply the suggestions of these theories to everyone on their team.

For instance, Maslow’s theory, which suggests that humans follow a needs path from physiological needs to needs of safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization, is a typically American point of view. Greece and Mexico, countries with cultures that look for a significant set of rules and guidelines in their lives, might have safety at the top of their pyramids, while Scandinavian countries, well known for their nurturing characteristics, might have social needs at the top of theirs. If these differences are well understood, managers can adapt accordingly, and understand that group work is more important for their Scandinavian workers, and so on.

What other theories fall short when you stand them up against other cultures? Well, the need to achieve and a concern for performance is found in the US, UK and Canada, but in countries like Chile and Portugal, it’s almost non-existent. The equity theory, which we talked about in the first section of this module, is embraced in the US, but in the former socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, workers expect their rewards to reflect their personal needs as well as their performance. It stands to reason that US pay practices might be perceived as unfair in these countries.

Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands and a former IBM employee, conducted some pioneering research on cross-cultural groups in organizations, which led to his cultural dimensions theory.

In this theory, Hofstede defines culture as the unique way in which people are collectively taught in their environments. He looks to compare and understand the collective mindset of these groups of people and how they differ. His conclusions were that cultural differences showed themselves in six significant buckets. Hofstede created an “index” for each category to show where individual cultures fell along the spectrum:

  • Power Distance: this is an index that describes the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. A higher index number suggests that hierarchy is clearly established and executed in society, while a lower index would indicate that people question authority in that culture. (Latin, Asian, and Arab countries score on the high side, while Anglo and Germanic countries score low. The US is in the middle.)
  • Individualism: this measures the degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups. The United States scores very high in this category.
  • Uncertainty avoidance: this is defined as a “society’s tolerance for ambiguity.” Cultures scoring high in this area opt for very defined codes of behavior and laws, while cultures scoring lower are more accepting of different thoughts and ideas. Belgium and Germany score high while countries like Sweden and Denmark score lower.
  • Masculinity vs femininity: in more masculine societies, women and men are more competitive, while in feminine societies, they share caring views equally with men. Anglo countries like the UK and the US tend to lean toward masculinity in their cultures, while Scandinavian countries tend toward femininity.
  • Long-term Orientation vs. Short-term Orientation: this measures the degree to which a society honors tradition. A lower score indicates traditions are kept, while a higher score indicates the society views adaptation and problem-solving as a necessary component of their culture. Asian cultures have strong long-term orientation, while Anglo countries, Africa and Latin America have shorter-term orientation.
  • Indulgence vs. restraint: this is a measurement of happiness if simple joys are fulfilled. Indulgent societies believe themselves to be in control of their lives, while restrained societies believe that external forces dictate their lives. There is less data about this particular dimension, but we do know that Latin America, the Anglo countries and Nordic Europe score high on indulgence, while Muslim countries and East Asia tend to score high on restraint.

The Hofstede Insight website takes the guesswork out of comparing countries’ cultures and can help you understand the collective viewpoint of their people as they relate to these six indices.

The six indices for Brazil, China, Germany, and United States. Brazil has the following numbers: 69 Power Distance, 38 Individualism, 49 Masculinity, 76 Uncertainty Avoidance, 44 Long Term Orientation, and 59 Indulgence. China has the following numbers: 80 Power Distance, 20 Individualism, 66 Masculinity, 30 Uncertainty Avoidance, 87 Long Term Orientation, and 24 Indulgence. Germany has the following numbers: 35 Power Distance, 67 Individualism, 66 Masculinity, 65 Uncertainty Avoidance, 83 Long Term Orientation, and 40 Indulgence. United States has the following numbers: 40 Power Distance, 91 Individualism, 62 Masculinity, 46 Uncertainty Avoidance, 26 Long Term Orientation, and 68 Indulgence.

When you compare Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as we briefly did above, you can see where cultural differences shift the order of needs on the pyramid. We mentioned above that Belgium and Germany score high on the uncertainty avoidance dimension—they don’t like social ambiguity, they want to be able to control their futures and feel threatened by the unknown. So it would make sense that, while “safety” is the second rung of the pyramid here in the United States, it’s a more significant need to satisfy in German culture.

Hofstede’s cultural dimension highlight the importance cultures place on different needs. These dimensions can be used to determine differences in individual needs based on their cultural teachings and beliefs.

Now that we’ve discussed this in some detail, it’s important to understand that not all motivational drivers are culture-bound. For example, the desire for interesting work appears to be important to all workers everywhere. Growth, achievement and responsibility were also highly rated across various cultures. The manager of an international team doesn’t have to approach everything differently. But keeping in mind that cultural differences drive individuals’ needs will help a manager create motivating circumstances for all his workers.

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