Cultural Context is Essential for Engaging Employees

An increasing number of employees come to work each day with very different sets of cultural norms and beliefs than their colleagues and managers.

By improving our understanding of cultural differences and how culture impacts behavior, we show respect for employees and help improve overall job performance, so let’s take a look at a few cultural contrasts and how to address them effectively.


America has a self-oriented culture. It’s common to measure and reward individual performance, with leaders routinely providing 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 utilized so that individuals and teams can measure their performance against their goals, or in comparison to other groups.

However, 80 percent 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, so calling out or rewarding only one member of a team would actually de-motivate that person and destroy the team’s effectiveness.


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 pre-destined outcomes. For employees with this belief – and it’s a significant portion of the global population – it’s difficult to establish causation for either exceptional or poor performance.


When hierarchy and authority are prominent and revered, it’s a sign of a high power difference culture. Employees wouldn’t expect to participate in establishing performance goals, evaluating or challenging results, or having a voice in task assignments.

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These would be standard expectations for their colleagues in low power difference cultures where employees often actively participate in the design and execution of their workday and they can be quite verbal when setting goals or providing ongoing feedback.


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 expect recognition and rewards will be granted to those who have earned them by achieving established goals understood by everyone.

In a culture of ascribed status, how one is treated is an outcome of who they are, their family’s social rank, and even where they may have gone to school or worked previously. Since an individual’s “quality” has already been ascribed to them by this social history, it’s difficult to attribute poor performance to them, and it’s believed they shouldn’t be penalized for less-than-stellar results.


Many employees from Eastern cultures put greater emphasis on titles and surnames than you may find in the West – honorifics indicate either social status or noteworthy achievements.

For example, in Japan, the “san” suffix is a sign of respect bestowed on someone with higher social standing and it would be a mistake not to include the suffix in your communications with them. Likewise, in China, ignoring someone’s honorific can be insulting.

The post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on

Named as one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry and to the Employee Engagement Power 100 list, a Change Maker, Top Idea Maven, and President’s Award winner, Michelle is a highly accomplished international speaker, author, and strategist on performance improvement. A respected authority on leadership, workplace culture, talent and employee engagement, she’s a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States.

Michelle speaks and writes about what she knows first-hand – as a former executive of a Fortune 100 global conglomerate, and as a researcher and strategist. She passionately shares new insights and tools for leaders to confidently, effectively and strategically lead their organizations to success.

Michelle is the Past President of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University and President Emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association. Michelle was the Founder and Chair of the Editorial Board of Return on Performance Magazine, and has been featured on Fox Television, the BBC, in Fortune, Business Week, Inc. and other global publications, and contributed to the books Bull Market by Seth Godin, Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk, and Social Media Isn’t Social.   




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