Management Tips: How to Motivate Your International Workforce

Matthew MacLachlan

18 May 2016

It is a given nowadays that an effective international manager needs to be flexible and adapt their style to match the context they are working in. But do most international managers always take the time to think about what motivates their employees belonging to a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures? Here are some tips to help you to motivate your international workforce.

The challenge that comes with recruiting an international workforce

Particularly, in times of economic downturn when employees are often expected to work harder and longer for less remuneration, managers need to consider carefully how to motivate their talented employees and how to incentivise them to remain loyal to the organisation. And talent management is much more complex in an international environment.

We all have a basic need to earn a good salary, feel safe at work, have enough time off and maintain relationships with our colleagues

The universal motivation recipe – The hygiene and higher level factors

There are of course some universal principles of motivation. We all have a basic need to:

  • Earn a good salary
  • Feel safe at work
  • Have enough time off
  • Maintain relationships with our colleagues

According to Herzberg, these are ‘hygiene factors’ which prevent us from being dissatisfied rather than positively motivating us. However, in addition, we are also motivated to a greater or less degree by ‘higher level’ factors such as:

  • Development
  • Stimulation
  • Variety
  • Recognition
  • Responsibility

Motivation factors vary depending on culture – The case of recognition

How these motivational factors translate across cultures can vary enormously. If we take recognition as an example, the way in which workers prefer to be recognised will differ according to their cultural background.

  • In more individualistic cultures such as the USA or Australia, employee of the month schemes work well and employees are praised as individuals through companywide emails or intranet postings
  • However, this could cause a loss of face rather than increase motivation in Asian cultures where employees prefer to be recognised for their hard work as part of a team or collective. Being singled out as an individual can be embarrassing and affect the team dynamic.

The case of status in an international workforce

Elsewhere personal achievement and development are the over-riding drivers

Obvious signs of status motivate more in some countries than others depending on the underlying attitudes to hierarchy. Sometimes a more prestigious job title or a larger office will incentivise as much as an increase in salary.

In relationship focused cultures motivators are likely to be more based on personal as well as professional factors. How supported and well looked after do employees feel, how good is their relationship with the boss and what level of family support is provided are all important in maintaining employee loyalty.

Elsewhere personal achievement and development are the over-riding drivers and the following are just some of the other factors which can affect how employees across the globes are motivated:

  • Expectations of feedback
  • Training initiatives
  • Career planning
  • Work life balance

The stick and carrot approach 

In some parts of the world, it is more acceptable to use the stick approach as well as the carrot to motivate employees.

  • In some Asian cultures, for example, is acceptable to use demotions when performance is considered to be below par
  • This is a strategy that would be more likely to cause an employee in a western culture to start looking for another job rather than to feel motivated to work harder

An international workforce requires you to tailor the incentives to the different cultures 

Most employees need to feel fulfilled and valued and an effective international people manager takes the time to understand how best to do to achieve this

It is important that organisational policies, as well as global leaders and managers of international workforces, reflect the need to motivate employees from different cultures through different incentives, processes and reward and recognition schemes.

Making the assumption that your international workforce will be motivated by the same incentives can be dangerous and have a real impact on talent retention.

Most employees need to feel fulfilled and valued and an effective international people manager takes the time to understand how best to do to achieve this – whether through setting up focus groups, having individual conversations or through taking part in training.



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