Motivating Employees from Other Cultures

Differences in cultural values require extra skill when attempting to motivate changes in behavior. Managers need to accurately interpret the situation and design a strategy that fits an individual's values and needs. This process is fairly straightforward when working with people of similar backgrounds, but is much more difficult when attempting to understand and motivate employees whose values and backgrounds may be different from your own.

The three steps listed below will help you design motivation strategies that are culturally aware and, therefore, useful in your efforts to maintain a harmonious and productive multicultural workplace.


Effective behavior change begins with accurately interpreting why an individual is involved in undesired behavior. Understanding why a person behaves in a particular way makes it easier to modify that behavior. For example, it is common for managers to misinterpret the speaking of a foreign language in the workplace as a sign of laziness, rudeness and disrespect. In fact, most often, using another language is an effort to communicate a job-related message accurately, a sign of extreme stress or fatigue or an effort to speed up the communication process.

You might be wondering, "How can I possibly know enough about cultural differences to accurately interpret all the different behaviors I may encounter?" The answer is simple: Ask. Ask the employee why he is late for work or why he failed to get the job done on time. If you do so with respect, you gather valuable and accurate information that will help you motivate the change you desire.


Explain your expectations in a way that can be understood by someone who was not raised in US culture. You would be surprised how often employers and managers fail to explain what they want and why they want it. Immigrant workers are rarely formally instructed in the values of US culture and even less often in the desires of US management.

Explaining what we want from others is not easy. Often, the most familiar procedures, policies and expectations are the most difficult to articulate. One example is the need for team members to voice their problems and complaints. A noncomplaining staff could be a hindrance, because you do not have the information you need to solve problems.

Many immigrants have a great deal of respect for their managers and feel it is inappropriate or a sign of disloyalty to complain. Your employees will never know what is expected of them until you take the time to spell out that you need to know about problems to do your job well and that a good employee brings difficulties to the manager's attention.

Positive Reinforcement

Reinforce desired behavior. Most of the time, this is simple. Notice that workers are doing what you want and praise them for it. When it comes to motivation across cultural boundaries, however, this step becomes a bit tricky.

Behaviors such as expressing problems or admitting lack of understanding can be difficult to reinforce because there is the temptation to shoot the messenger. It is understandably difficult for managers to praise the worker who arrives bearing news of a missed deadline or a broken piece of equipment. Even though it isn't easy, try to distance yourself from the problem long enough to praise the staff member for keeping you informed and to encourage him to continue to do so.

Another problem with reinforcement is the danger of taking certain behaviors for granted. US managers, for example, may not realize how difficult it is for non-English speakers to consistently speak English in the workplace and will, therefore, fail to compliment them on that effort. Try to be aware of behaviors that are easy for you but may be difficult for others. People are different, but they all respond to kind words and thoughtful praise.