Motivation Theories and Their Proximity to Culture

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Frederick Herzberg (1965), as an extension to his study The Motivation to Work, showed that his theory Motivation-Hygiene Theory is equally applicable to all cultures. He demonstrated in this empirical research that Motivation-Hygiene theory is not constrained by the cultural influence in the management process. But that was in the 1960s after which organizational studies have undergone tremendous change. Does Herzberg’s view that culture does not affect motivational theory still hold? In this paper, we will argue otherwise, i.e. motivation theories are culture-bound. This paper provides a comprehensive understanding of the research on motivation theories and their proximity to culture.

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But before dwelling any further, it is important to understand what we mean by culture, and is it national culture or organizational culture that we are considering? Here we consider a definition of culture developed by Geert Hofstede as a “collective mental programming of the people in an environment. Culture is not a characteristic of individuals; it encompasses several people who were conditioned by the same education and life experience.” (Herzberg 43) In this definition, there is distinct importance laid on the culture affecting individual needs and values. At this point, it is important to understand that organizational culture and national culture are two distinct concepts and in this article, I will deal with national culture as a constraint on motivational theories. This is so because national culture may or may not differ from organizational culture, but affects it (Latham and Pinder; Fisher and Yuan; Hofstede).

National Culture and Motivation Theories

If we recount the study on Motivation-Hygiene theory, research has shown that natural culture does not affect the theory of motivation of employees (Herzberg). Herzberg studied his theory on a group of American and Finish employees after establishing that there exists a considerable difference in their national culture. But the study showed that there exists no alteration in results and the theory holds implying that there exists no effect of national culture on motivation theories.

But I believe otherwise. The first reason for this conclusion is individual’s self-concept, beliefs, values, and needs differ with culture. As people in different cultures show different sets of values, their ethical norms at work differ. Further, due to the different levels of need, the factors which can motivate or prevent dissatisfaction vary. As the needs and values of individuals are different the motivational theories applied to them, be it Maslow’s Hierarchal Theory or Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene theory, their application will differ with differences in culture. A similar view has been presented in the literature review by Latham and Pinder (2005) and the research of Fisher and Yuan (1998).

The second reason which I feel affects workforce motivation is dependent on the five dimensions of culture devised by Hofstede, especially individualism/collectivism, masculinity, and power distance (Hofstede). The reason for the difference in workforce motivation in an individualistic culture would be the need to fulfill individual needs rather than the collective needs of a group. Further, with high cultural power distance, the power distance in the organization is expected to be high; and in such situations, motivation theories will be more effective. So in cultures that have a high level of power distance, motivational measures of superiors will have more effect on subordinates. This view is found in the study of Latham and Pinder (2005).

The third and most important argument is that motivational theories cannot reject cultural conditioning. Following Hofstede (1980) it can be said that what will motivate a person will depend significantly on the cultural conditioning through which the individual has gone through. Sigmund Freud believes that we are driven by forces that are unconsciously within us, which he calls id. The ego, which he calls our conscious mind, tries to control these forces, and the superego, which is again our unconscious inner driver, is determined to criticize the thoughts and actions of our ego. According to Freud, the superego is the conditioned ‘us’, which is the outcome of learning from our parents, socialization, and immediate environment as a child (Robbins and Judge).

So our superego, with its cultural conditioning, controls us and thus affects our beliefs and feelings. So motivation must be directed towards the superego which is bounded by culture. As Hofstede states, “Too strong Uncertainty Avoidance countries like Austria, working hard is caused by an inner Urge – it is a way of relieving stress” (Hofstede 53) Thus, cultural conditioning is a major factor that would affect how employees need to be motivated.

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The above discussion clearly shows that motivation theories must be culture-bound. As Hofstede (1980) argues, management theories of motivation that are in use today are mostly “manufactured” in America and their arguments are bounded by the theorist’s cultural constructions. This he shows pointing at the difference between the psychological theories of motivation between Freud’s (who is an Austrian) and that of Maslow, Herzberg, Vroom, and McClelland. Hofstede states that motivation theories are used to “humanize” the working conditions and argue that due to difference in culture the motivational approaches adopted in countries differ. He exemplifies through the following:

“There are two main currents in the humanization of work—one, developed in the United States and called job enrichment, aims at restructuring individual jobs…The other current, developed in Europe… aims at restructuring work into group work—forming, for example, such semiautonomous teams as those seen in the experiments at Volvo. Why the difference in approaches? What is seen as a “human” job depends on a society’s prevailing model of humankind.” (Hofstede 56)

Thus, work motivation is affected by culture and motivational measures differ with changes in cultural norms and values. Above all, the cultural constructs and discourses become a strong force in developing the self-concept of individuals and thus their change in motivational need. Hence, it can be concluded that motivational theories are culture-bound.


Fisher, Cynthia D. and Anne Xue Ya Yuan. “What motivates employees? A comparison of US and Chinese responses.” The International Journal of Human Resource Management 9(3) (1998): 516-30.

Herzberg, Fredrick. “The Motivation to Work among Finish Supervisors.” Personnel Psychology 18(4) (1965): 393-402.

Hofstede, Geert. “Motivation, Leadership, and Organization: Do American Theories Apply Abroad?” Organizational Dynamics (1980): 42-85.

Latham, Gary P. and Craig C. Pinder. “Work Motivation Theory and Research at teh Dawn of the Twenty-First Century.” Annual Review of Psychology 56 (2005): 485–516.

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Robbins, Stephen P. and Timothy A. Judge. Organizational Behavior 11th Edition. San Diego: Prentice Hall , 2005.

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