Employee Engagement & Culture

Posted on September 15, 2011

Employee Engagement & Culture

Employee Engagement & Culture header

This blog is adapted from an article by Ernest. Gundling, Ph.D., “Motivation, Engagement, and Culture”, first published for the 2010 ASHRM Conference.

The interactions between managers and employees from various cultural backgrounds can either contribute to or detract from employee engagement and culture. Effectively leveraging a broad range of cultural factors will help to ensure optimum employee engagement, company culture, and workforce adaptability.

The Manager’s Role

Analysis of evidence from more than a million respondents to surveys by the Gallup Organization has highlighted six areas that appear to have the strongest links to employee engagement and a strong and productive workplace:

  • Clear performance expectations
  • Resources available to get job done
  • The opportunity to do what one does best
  • Frequent recognition/praise
  • Care demonstrated by supervisor towards employee
  • Support for employee development1

This research underlines the critical role of the employee’s relationship to his/her manager in influencing both productivity and retention. What, then, is the impact of that relationship when there are cultural differences between managers and subordinates?

CULTUREDefining Culture

Culture is a multi-layered phenomenon. It is possible to identify a telescoping set of cultural influences that include national origin, industry, organization, function, team, and family. These aspects of culture are interrelated in various ways.

For instance, the culture of an organization may be shaped by characteristics of the country in which it is headquartered, its industrial context, the dominant functional roles within it, the character of its management team, and family owners or the influences of family members on key executives and employees.

Examining culture through the national lens, the GlobeSmart ProfileSM chart below compares similarities and differences between various countries representing different world regions:

GlobeSmart Multi-Country Comparison

The GlobeSmart Profile is Aperian Global’s online cultural inventory enabling individuals to discover & compare their own unique work-styles & get advice on how to work more effectively with other cultures & colleagues.

One useful definition of culture is that it is a way of solving problems in a particular environment. According to this definition, different environments shape a variety of cultural patterns. So what happens when a manager from one environment comes into contact with an employee from a different one?

The Difference the Differences Make

Given the significance of the relationship with one’s manager for employee engagement, a possible hypothesis might be that the wider the cultural gap between employee and manager, the lower the level of employee productivity and retention. On the other hand, sources of technical expertise, labor, supplies, and capital are becoming increasingly globalized, and a multicultural workforce is likely to be better equipped to adapt to these changes. Problem-solving styles based in any particular cultural setting are frequently inadequate for addressing issues that span national boundaries, time zones, and institutions. Indeed, there is evidence that monocultural teams are prone to “group think” or blind spots which are not conducive to solving complex problems, whereas multicultural teams are more creative even as they face greater challenges in establishing shared norms for communication, problem-solving, and decision-making.2

A manager with a more interdependent perspective may expect a level of teamwork that makes anindependently-minded subordinate appear to be a “lone wolf;” meanwhile, an independently– minded manager may misjudge the desire of interdependent employees to work together in a team setting as a sign of insufficient initiative. In a similar vein, research points to different culturally based expectations of employees related to attitudes towards status: some expect their manager to have precise answers to the questions of subordinates, while others with a more egalitarian perspective favor a facilitative management style in which the manager draws out the answers from subordinates.3 Or a relationship-oriented manager might find that task-focused employees are impatient to get on with the job, while a task-oriented manager could neglect to build and nurture personal ties essential for engaging more relationship-oriented team members.

Management Skills Required

Because most large organizations are faced with the business imperative to work successfully across boundaries of many kinds, they need to focus on building the skills for effective management across cultures. So how can intercultural management skills be developed that foster employee engagement while leveraging different perspectives for optimum creativity and adaptation to address real business problems?

It is useful to keep in mind from the start that cultural comparisons may differ from national norms when examined on a corporate culture or a team basis, and to refrain from rigid stereotypes in favor of data-based observations that can be altered based on new information. For example, data from local nationals in one company based in the Middle East indicate that its corporate culture parallels the national style in the direction of interdependence, is somewhat more direct in communication style, and is considerably more task-focused than the national norm.4 Individual profiles may of course vary even more widely relative to national averages.

Experience with thousands of managers from many cultures indicates that they can benefit from the common three-step pattern for understanding and addressing cultural differences: 1) self-awareness; 2) acquisition of knowledge regarding similarities and differences between self and others; 3) constructive efforts to bridge significant gaps. As straightforward as this prescription is, its implementation can go awry for many reasons, including the unfounded tendency to assume that we are more similar to others than we actually are, and the inclination to dismiss differences as unimportant. Cultural dimensions themselves are more complex than they appear on the surface, with even cultures that appear to fall at similar points on the scale having radically different ways of going about the same practice.5

Practical Considerations

Below are several of the previously noted areas identified by the Gallup study as important to employee engagement, along with a sample cultural dimension and related questions for consideration. Managers need heightened awareness in order to recognize the need to ask themselves such questions, and they also must cultivate the ability to respond appropriately.




Clear performance expectations

Egalitarian vs. Status

Do employees on my team expect me to tell them what to do or to elicit ideas from them?

Should employees solve problems themselves or should they bring them first to me?

Frequent recognition & praise

Direct vs. Indirect

How are recognition and praise expressed in the cultures from which my employees come? What are the most common settings: public or private, formal or informal?

Do my team members expect recognition to be expressed verbally or through indirect means such as the assignment of greater responsibility or constructive criticism?

Care demonstrated by supervisor towards employee

Independent vs. Interdependent;
Task vs. Relationship

How is care demonstrated in each employee’s cultural setting?

Does an employee expect to work closely with other team members or more independently?

How often should my team meet in person?

Are team member relations strictly professional or do they extend to more personal friendship ties as well?

Support for employee development

Status vs. Egalitarian;
Risk vs. Certainty

What does development mean to employees in their own cultural settings? Are they most interested in credentials, certificates, titles, promotions, on-the-job skill building, self-guided study, formal group training, personal mentoring, professional associations, etc.?

To what extent are they willing to take risks and try new projects and assignments that require personal initiative and innovation, or do they prefer a safer and more structured career path?


The answers to these questions will naturally vary according to the particular profile of the manager and the backgrounds of team members, and there is no single correct answer to any question. In some cases managers may choose to adapt to the preferred styles of employees, whereas in others they may ask employees to adapt to them, or find a way to blend different styles.

As richly varied as the mix of possible responses may be, the cultural questions outlined above are likely to be crucial ones for managers to focus on in order to build engagement within a multicultural team. And a team with fully engaged members at its core – with positive, flexible, and mutually respectful relationships between manager and employees – will be in a position to fully tap its creative potential and adapt effectively to a changing business environment.

Aperian Global has been developing training and support programs for more than 25 years to keep cross-cultural and international teams collaborating and working together. We have seen that a deep understanding and engagement with functional, cultural, and generational differences can become a team’s greatest asset. Explore our full range of Learning Solutions or contact us today to learn more.


1 Buckingham, Marcus, and Coffman, Curt, First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999, p. 33-34

2 Adler, Nancy, International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, Fourth Edition. Cincinnati, Ohio: South-Western, 2002, pp. 139-147.

3 See, e.g., Laurent, Andre, “The Cultural Diversity of Western Conceptions of Management,” International Studies of Management and Organization, XIII, 1983, pp. 75-96.

4 The data cited is based upon GlobeSmart web tool cultural self-assessment surveys filled out by approximately 700 managers from one organization; the surveys were structured according to the same six dimensions that are displayed in Figure 1.

5 For example, two cultures that are both classified as more egalitarian may define this very differently. The U.S. is commonly regarded as relatively egalitarian, but there are enormous differences in compensation between top executives and front-line employees in large companies; in northern Europe such levels of executive compensation are often frowned upon while higher taxes to fund social services such as health care are taken for granted.

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