Motivating people across cultures: A 2-pronged approach

Main Discussion Post


I do not believe that the approach for motivating an employee is universal.  As Adler (2008) mentions there are different cultural values that may dictate motivation.  Most “universal” motivation campaigns have been developed in the United States (2008).  Earley and Erez (1997) mention that each individual has a self-concept that is regulated by enhancement, efficacy, and consistency, which regulate the influence of culture on behavior.  These motives reflect how a person views him or herself in society (1997).  Because we have different personality types and cultural values, whether individualistic or collectivist cultures, there can be no universal truth for motivation.  We can have broad, over-arching principles like the two-factor motivation theory proposed by Herzberg (Adler, 2008).  This principle states that extrinsic and internal factors both equally can be used to motivate employees.  An external factor, like money, might not hold the same motivational value to some as it does to others, whereas performing at high levels and having pride about the company might not be equal as well.  Based on the fact that we are all different and have different cultural backgrounds and values, I do not think it will ever be possible to have a single, narrow approach for motivation.  There are too many factors and variables to consider.




Adler, N. and Gunderson, A. (2008). International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior (5th Ed.). Cincinnati, OH, US: Southwestern.


Early, P., and Erez, M. (eds) (1997). New Perspectives on International Industrial /Organizational Psychology. San Francisco, CA, US: Pfeiffer.

Flexibility and Intelligence

The more I write about creativity and its relationship to intelligence, the more I appreciate creative people. This doesn’t necessarily mean someone who is artistic or musically inclined, just someone who can think creatively. Someone who “thinks outside the box” (talk about an overused clichéd term). My dissertation topic is on using creativity to improve problem solving skills in Third Culture Kids (kids who are living in a different culture than where they were born or where their parents are from and don’t know the language/customs/etc.). Obviously these children are at a disadvantage in that they cannot communicate very well, will lose ground in school, and thus the downward spiral begins. So using different means to keep these children from slipping through the cracks needs to be utilized and the learning curve shortened.


I have read probably about 200+ articles on this topic now. Creativity. Divergent thinking. Fluency. Originality. Elaboration. Flexibility. These terms come up over and over again in the world of intelligence and creativity. Those who are high in these capabilities are typically both creative and intelligent. I find that flexibility is the one skill that needs to be fostered early and often (not to say the others should be ignored). But as I talk to more and more people on a day to day basis about various topics I realize that flexible thinking is INCREDIBLY important in intelligence.


Being flexible is basically being open-minded. Your thought process can bend and be malleable. You do not get into a rigid thought process about concepts or ideas. “This is the way it is and that’s the only way I will allow myself to see it.” You don’t limit yourself or your understanding to a set paradigm. If you see a problem, you can think of many different ways to solve it. There are several keys to open the lock.


My favorite example of this is Alton Brown from “Good Eats” on Food Network. He is wont to demonstrate his affinity for “multi-taskers” and his disdain for “uni-taskers.” For instance, his use of a common drill bit for an apple corer, a terra cotta stepping stone from the hardware store have been used as a pizza stone, or a standard zip top bag for a piping bag used to decorate cakes and cookies (Brown, 1998). As Defeyter and German (2003) showed, this is common for many of us to fall into, as children as young as 6 years old show less ability to use an item for anything other than its intended use. However, being able to not be beholden to functional fixedness, and use creative processes will allow you to save money on all of these gadgets, space in your drawers, and also use analyze a problem from a different perspective. This is a result of being able to think about problems in different ways as opposed to one problem=one solution.


So how is this related to intelligence? If you don’t close your mind to an idea, and you are open to new ways of approaching a problem or open to new evidence to alter your perspective on things then you can L E A R N something new all the time! Don’t fall into the pattern that you know all the angles. You don’t. You never will. Otherwise you’ll become one of those people who gets locked into thinking “I know all about that” or being narrow-minded and thinking “all those people are like this.” Nobody likes that person. And nobody has ever accused that person of being intelligent.


Brown, A. (Writer, Director). (1998). Good Eats.

Defeyter, M., Avons, S. E., & German, T. C. (2007). Developmental changes in information central to artifact representation: Evidence from “functional fluency” tasks. Developmental Science, 10(5), 538-546.


Is losing a customer really worth just $11?

My wife is an avid online shopper. It’s convenient, you can comparison shop, you can do it at 2 in the morning when you can’t sleep,  you can buy stuff you wouldn’t be able to find in a store, etc. etc. She has loaded up an Ikea file drawer with a plethora of nail polish this way. We’re talking lots of polish. 100+. She has even developed a good reputation with several smaller-batch polish and makeup makers because of her loyalty and recognition of good product. Several will send her extras and samples with her orders because they recognize a good customer. However, recently one of these small companies decided that fixing their own mistake and trying to cheat her out of $11 was worth more than getting some more repeat business out of her.


She had ordered about $60 or so worth of various products from an online store. She got her confirmation email and we went off to dinner. About 2 hours later she got another confirmation email for the same order. She figured it was a mistake in the system, the email got sent twice. No big deal. About a week later 2 orders of the exact same thing showed up. She contacted the company and they said they wouldn’t take it back because it would cost them money to resell, restock, and they’ve already shelled out $11 to ship these items to her. She explained this was not her fault, it was theirs and she didn’t really care about them being out the money for their own mistake. She wanted her duplicate order money refunded and for them to cover shipping. This doesn’t sound like it should be rocket science, but apparently the decision making process at this online store is lacking.


They kept trying to guilt her into this over the course of several emails. Finally, my wife got annoyed stating that she has bought from these people many times before and couldn’t believe the treatment she was receiving. Let me reiterate that UPS basically has a parking spot in front of our apartment from all of the beauty supplies she buys every week being delivered. This was the last straw with them not admitting their mistake or demanding she split the cost of this mistake with them, or any other ridiculous thing. She said she would take her business elsewhere. Their response: “You’re the one who’s willing to cut ties over $11.”


Well, no. They’re the ones willing to cut ties over $11. They’re the company looking to sell items and my wife is the one with a gazillion options on places to shop. So, even if this was an honest mistake on their part they handled it poorly. Even if this situation were completely different and it was my wife’s fault, they need to understand that this poor customer service experience has cost them a ready and willing customer who loves to get any new shade of nail polish she can. For $11 they decided they stood on stupid principle. They need to realize that the first 2 rules of customer service are: 1)the customer is always right, and 2)reread rule 1. Rudeness and guilt are poor ways to run a customer service department. It leaves a lasting impression that will leave people not spending money with you and blogging about it on the internet.

Have you ever seen a championship team without chemistry?

Continuing the theme of Peyton Manning talk, we’re shifting to chemistry now. As any sports fan knows, the chemistry of a team is very important. It’s one of those buzzwords you hear on ESPN all the time whenever some sort of team controversy pops up, which is all the time. When some player chimes in with some disparaging words for his fellow teammates or coach, “chemistry” is the new word of the day. The thing is, we rarely ever see the ESPN analysts discussing this issue with championship teams do we? And a lot of those championship teams have a core group of players that have been wearing that same uniform for quite a while. Coincidence? I think not. Look at the Patriots run of championships and success. The Colts had a lot of success. The Lakers. The Yankees. The Twins and the A’s in the early part of the decade. It’s not all about money and buying talent. It’s about keeping the same working pieces who can coexist and work well together and functioning like a well-oiled machine.


With the Peyton Manning news finally coming to an end (at least until training camp starts) we saw another player who was entangled in his decision end up going back to his old team. Alex Smith. Alex Smith is the starting QB for a team with a core group of players that have been there for quite a while now. They may add a piece or two here and there, but for the most part they have stayed the same. There is a lot to be said for that. When players have played together for a long time, they don’t have to think. They just react. They trust each other to do the right thing, to be where they are supposed to be. They develop a bond and understand how they will react and what can press their respective buttons. Smith’s returning to SF is, I believe, a very important element to the chemistry continuing to build towards a championship.


I read an article a few years ago about this same issue with doctors and hospital personnel. This is an area where the entire community where that hospital is benefits from how well they do their job. Do you want a surgeon performing anything risky on you if his or her mind is half-concentrating on whether or not the new nurse knows what they’re doing? No. Of course not. The article essentially stated that hospitals run much more smoothly the longer the employees have worked together. Why should that change for any other industry? Sure you want some fresh ideas every once in a while. But keeping that core chemistry thriving towards the “well-oiled machine” goal of every good company is very important. And, hopefully, for my hometown 49ers, that core chemistry will produce big time next year.

The Peter Principle and its impact on trust and the team

Everyone who has ever worked has probably witnessed the Peter Principle at work. This is where someone is hired and placed, or promoted passed their level of competence. As I am sure we can all attest, this is not a fun thing to have to deal with (assuming it is not you who has been PP’d).

There is a lot to be said about trust in a supervisor. If you don’t trust that the person who supervises you, makes decisions that directly affect you, understand the direction they are leading your department/team/business then you won’t feel confident in following them. You will feel apprehensive and doubting.

Friedlander (1970) found that trust helped the formation of group development and facilitates the ease to which a person can assimilate.  Being able to trust that the group is doing the right thing will allow ease of training.  By modifying our expectations and self-handicapping we can modify the impact from failure’s effect on our self-esteem.  By setting lower goals and expectations for ourselves, we allow ourselves to accomplish less or not strive so as to not completely damage our self-worth (Seli, Dembo, & Crocker, 2009).  Trust allows us to feel better and therefore be allowed to effectively be trained.

Yukl (2006) explains that high levels of cooperation and trust will ensure a team in carrying out its mission.  Keeping these values high will keep the team members helping each other, sharing information, and working together better in stressful situations (Yukl, 2006).  It is therefore important for the leader to foster better teamwork and communication to keep the flow of information moving and the team functioning at its highest capacity. But if you don’t trust the leader why would you follow them? Why would this make a stressful situation not as stressful?

The Peter Principle does not end up just placing an incompetent person in one role in the organization. This person ends up infecting the entire culture of trust and productivity of the company. It infects the well-being of departments, output, and teamwork. It is incredibly important then for those that hire and place people in jobs do their homework to make sure they are getting the right person to help make those decisions, foster trust, and enhance their organization.



Friedlander, F. (1970). The primacy of trust as a facilitator of further group accomplishment. Journal of Applied Behavior Science, 6(4), 387-400. DOI: 10.1177/002188637000600401

Seli, H., Dembo, M.H., & Crocker, S (2009). Self in self-worth protection: The relationship of possible selves and self-protective strategies. College Student Journal, 43(3). 832-842.

Yukl, G. (2006). Leadership in organizations (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Autonomy in the office

I’ve been seeing a lot of blogs and articles about autonomy lately. I’m not sure if this is the buzz word of 2012 or what, but it is an often overlooked part of a business’ success. For those who aren’t quite sure what “autonomy” means, it’s basically doing the opposite of micro-managing. Allowing your employees to work and find their way to do things best. The only universal motivators across cultures are autonomy, variety, and intrinsic value (Peterson & Ruiz-Quintanilla, 2006) so obviously this is a key to an organization’s success.

An often overlooked part of autonomy, an over-compensation perhaps, is allowing too much autonomy. What managers need to realize is there’s a difference between autonomy and passivity. You still need to provide a direction to the employee, an objective for output. The autonomy comes from the employee using their own style to get there. This is incredibly important! I can’t overstate this enough. Often times there is little importance in the process of how things get done. Allowing your employees to figure out what works for them to get the job done is the important thing.

Let’s face it, the important part of business is the bottom line. What difference does it really make how you get there (obviously ethics and legalities are important, but the process and job descriptions are not)? Playford, Dawson, Limbert, Smith, Ward, and Wells (2000) found that participation in one’s own goal setting and program for achieving those goals improved the performance of individuals.  By allowing the managers to take part in their own goal setting and implementation will lead to higher performance. Autonomy of getting to the end goal, in other words, allows the managers and employees to find their own path. Do you like being told exactly what and how to do something? Probably not. Some structure and feedback are important, but leaving the employee some freedom and trust to get the job done that they’ve been hired for goes a long long way.


Peterson, M.F., & Ruiz-Quintanilla, S.A. (2003). Cultural socialization as a source of intrinsic work motivation. Group & Organization Management, 28(2), 188-216. DOI: 10.1177/1059601103251228.

Playford, E.D., Dawson, L., Limbert, V., Smith, M., Ward, C.D., & Wells, R. (2000). Goal-setting in rehabilitation: report of a workshop to explore professionals’ perceptions of goal-setting. Clinical Rehabilitation, 14(5), 491-496. DOI: 10.1191/0269215500cr343oa.

Goal Setting

I do a couple activities in my class on goal setting.  Having them write down their goals (4.0 GPA, graduating in 18 months, etc.), list the skills they have that will help them achieve that goal, what factors do they control and what factors are out of their control, what are the short-term goals that will lead to the long-term goal, what is the time frame, and what are some possible setbacks and how will they overcome them if/when they come up.

Goals need to be broken up into long and short-term.  Set your ultimate long-term goal (anything that is a year out or more) then essentially the short-term goals are the baby steps that get you there.  For my students, if the long-term goal is graduating in 18 months, the short-term goals may be to earn 3.5+ each quarter, be a mentor, have perfect attendance, etc..  The STGs help keep you focused on the bigger picture so you don’t get frustrated the the LTG is so far off you lose interest.

The really important parts that most people don’t do in goal setting is setting timeframes for achievement and being specific about what they want.  If you aren’t specific about your goal you really just have nothing.  For instance, if you just say you want to lose weight you haven’t done yourself any favors.  That doesn’t give you any motivation to lose weight or any direction from which to sit down and make a plan.  If you lose 1 lb, technically you’ve lost weight and you’re done.  If you say you want to lose 15 lbs. then you have direction, you are accountable to yourself, and you can make a plan for what and how to do it, and also think about the things that may get in your way.  And you can set up STGs to get you there to keep your interest, like maybe 1-2 lbs a week.  The time frame is also important so that you are accountable to some deadline.  If you want to lose 15 lbs, well you have all the time in the world to do it.  If you want to lose 15 lbs in 3 months, then you now have a complete goal and some pressure to make it happen.

Accountability is very important too.  I’m not the greatest at this, but I’m getting better.  However, make yourself accountable to someone else if you can.  Tell your friend that if you don’t achieve your STGs every week or 2 that you’ll clean their apartment or something like that.  Make them your personal trainer that’ll kick you in the butt to get you going if that’s what you need.

A really good tip I got from my dissertation chair is to set up a reward schedule (actually writing it down) for when you achieve all of your goals.  This helps to keep you motivated (although not rewarding yourself for not achieving the goals is the hard part).  So, for instance, you lose your 1-2 lbs/week, you treat yourself to a couple itunes downloads or something.  When you hit the halfway point, maybe a massage, and the ultimate goal is some new clothes.  Deciding the rewards before hand is important though.

This gets you to really think about what’s important to you as well as how you really need to go about getting to the finish line.  Just remember: be specific, set a timeline, be accountable, and set a plan for how you’ll get unstuck when you hit the wall.  I think most people have never really been shown how to set goals or even been correctly shown how to do it.  A quotation I show to my students during this lecture is “goals are dreams with deadlines.” i think that’s about right.