Turning Marmots Into Busy Beavers: Reflections on Motivating People Across Cultures

In Germany, Marmots are called “Murmeltiere”. They are the absolute metaphor for the life of a sleepyhead. It seems the fact that they only sleep through the whole winter, but not the summer, doesn’t seem to matter to us Germans. We just determined that they are lazy and that’s it. End of the discussion. Most of us are also not necessarily aware that they are highly social animals who communicate with each other by whistleblow… eh… whistling. Sorry.

“Okay that’s all good and everything, but what’s the point?” Good question! Well, in this article I want to discuss the differences between motivating employees in individualistic vs. collectivist societies. The stereotypes about collectivist countries vary. Some, like China, Japan and Korea are perceived as absolute hard-workers. Employees often spend up to 15 hours at work. And while in other countries like Indonesia the norm of staying long is common as well, expatriates often perceive them as relatively lazy. Yes, they stay long at work, but they spend much of their time talking or on social media. In short: they love to talk.

The truth is that overall they work as much as their foreign colleagues. Since Asians often do not separate between different parts of their life, work and the colleagues simply takes a more important role than in the West. Your colleagues are also your friends, maybe even your second family. Where does work stop and life begin?

So in what ways does the integration of work and family life on motivating employees?

Daniel H. Pink is famous for popularizing motivational theories through his book “Drive“. He says that for routine tasks, extrinsic rewards lead to better results and higher motivation, while for tasks that require creativity, intrinsic rewards are more successful. These are:

  • Mastery: the chance to grow, develop and ultimately master a subject
  • Purpose: the feeling that what you are doing is meaningful and contributes to a higher purpose
  • Autonomy: the feeling of having the autonomy to make decisions regarding one’s own task, how to solve it, how to arrange the time etc.

While it is scientifically solid that these factors contribute to employee’s motivation, the question is whether they are universal, or limited to individualistic countries. Mastery and purpose surely are relevant in all societies. Though the degree to which they are important varies. In France, for example, job enrichment programs are not perceived as very important, especially compared to Anglo-Saxon countries. This suggests that using one’s full range of abilities is not considered that important. Instead, French people place a higher value on factors such as job security and fringe benefits.

Okay, but not to the most questionable of all these aspects: autonomy. How much value do people from collectivist countries such as China, Japan or Korea place on autonomy? First of all: it is a difficult question to answer, because the concept of autonomy in, for example, China is completely different than the western one. In China full autonomy of the individual doesn’t exist – what they have is relational autonomy – which is the ability to make decisions within a system of interrelated relationships. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it is like a “a crucial back-and-forth tug between the self and the various authorities surrounding it is woven into the very fabric of what it means to be a fully attained, authoritative, empowered, and integrated individual”.



With that said, it is less the autonomy of the individual that is important, but rather the ability of the work-group as a whole to make a decision in a harmonic way. Look at the the Japanese system, where lower-level employees discuss a new idea to be implemented, then each individual either signs – or doesn’t sign – a letter which is then passed on to the next higher level until it reaches top-management. Here every individual gets to voice his or her opinion, but in the end it is the group as a whole that has makes a decision together.

Since people assume responsibility together, it is only logical that they are also rewarded together. Pay for performance is a system that does not work very well. If you increase the salary of some employees, but pay others less, then you automatically cause them to loose face. And I think we all know what that means. Instead, rewarding employees in collectivist societies means improving the work environment so that everybody gets to feel more comfortable as a group. This includes moral persuasion by recognizing the importance of the group’s work, activities with a team-building effect and group-based incentives in general. Or, in more simple words: everything that can increase the happiness of the group as a whole.





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