How do different cultures measure ‘success’?

Collaborating with people from different cultural backgrounds means MBA students need to be aware that we all view ‘success’ in different ways, says BI Norwegian Business School’s Anders Dysvik

In recent years, the working world has changed – job roles are more dynamic and flexible, and this has made the planning and management of careers more self-directed. Employees in this ‘boundaryless’ career context are advised, and even expected, to manage their own careers proactively. Individuals’ efforts to progress in this context, through career planning and skill development, are characterised by three core components: ‘taking control’, ‘anticipation’, and ‘information retrieval’.

‘Taking control’ involves proactive behaviours which offer a sense of autonomy and self-control in how an individual’s career is progressing. ‘Anticipation’ involves acting in advance and working towards personal goals before achieving them. In terms of ‘information retrieval’, proactive behaviours centre on accessing information and resources that allow individuals to achieve their desired career goals.

Past research has found that these behaviours are positively related to career success, but what is considered ‘success’ can differ among cultures.

When evaluating how successful we are in our careers, we are likely to have different priorities and be influenced by different norms or values that are set largely by the prevailing culture. Therefore, it is problematic that the majority of studies on proactive career behaviours have been conducted in single countries, predominantly the US and western Europe. These countries overwhelmingly reflect the WEIRD perspective (western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic) where a strong emphasis on self-management is more prevalent than elsewhere in the world. This means standards of success are being applied to cultures where it may not be relevant.

Progression and importance

‘Success’ is also a very general term. A distinction needs to be made between ‘progression’ and ‘importance’. You might progress extensively in an area, such as gaining a salary increase, but you might not consider this of great importance so it would not be an appropriate measure of success for you.

My research, conducted with colleagues across Europe, Canada and Colombia, focused on the relationship between proactive career behaviours and the perceived achievement of two different measures of subjective career success: perceived financial success and work-life balance. We used a sample of 11,892 employees from 22 different countries selected from nine culture clusters defined by the Global Leadership and Organisational Behaviour Effectiveness (GLOBE) project; a project developed to help those in leadership understand which countries had similar and differing cultures.

Overall, we found that employees were more likely to be proactive in their career to achieve subjective financial success than to achieve an effective work-life balance. However, the importance of being proactive to achieve either of these measures differed among cultures.

The GLOBE project identifies nine cultural competencies; characteristics which most cultures exhibit to varying degrees. It was how a country measured on four of these competencies – ‘in-group collectivism’, ‘power distance’, ‘uncertainty avoidance’, and ‘humane orientation’ – which indicated what they considered to be indicators of career success. When it comes to work-life balance, career proactivity was shown to be relatively more important in cultures with high levels of humane orientation and in-group collectivism.

Humane orientation is the degree to which a society encourages and rewards individuals for being fair, altruistic, and kind to others. Cultures with high humane orientation are characterised by a shared understanding that the interests of others are important, and have expectations of behaviours that promote the well-being of others. This includes countries such as the US, UK, and Australia.

In-group collectivism is the degree to which individuals express pride, loyalty and cohesiveness in organisations or families. In individualistic societies, people view themselves as independent and free to pursue behaviours that benefit them, without much regard to the consequences for the larger group. In collectivist societies, individuals view themselves as interdependent with members of the groups to which they belong. In our research, cultures measuring high on in-group collectivism, such as those in the UK and US, valued career proactivity in attaining a good-work life balance. 

Subjective success

Career proactivity was found to be relatively more important for subjective financial success in cultures with high levels of power distance, low levels of uncertainty avoidance and, surprisingly, among cultures displaying high levels of in-group collectivism. 

Uncertainty avoidance considers the way people in a society deal with unforeseen events and change. Countries that score lower here tend to be better at accepting change, are more willing to take risks, and favour informal interactions instead of regulating situations with predetermined norms. This included ‘Latin American’ and ‘eastern European’ countries, such as Georgia and Brazil.

Power distance concerns society’s views on individual status and the degree to which it accepts there is an unequal distribution of power and authority. Countries with high levels of power distance, such as Japan and China, considered financial success to be an important indicator of career success which individuals should proactively strive for. High power distance cultures are characterised by strong hierarchies and limited upward social mobility.

As cultures with high in-group collectivism value group cohesion and the prioritisation of common goals, it might be assumed that they would also view the pursuit of financial success as a selfish endeavour. Unexpectedly, however, it was found that cultures with high in-group collectivism also considered financial success important for career success. An explanation for this finding may be that high in-group collectivist societies expect individuals to use their financial success for the benefit of the whole group, rather than for individual or self-centred goals. In fact, in collectivist countries, such as China and India, individuals tend to view a poor work-life balance as an inevitable cost in achieving financial stability for their family.

Overall, our findings revealed that proactive career behaviours were significantly related to perception of financial success, but not work-life balance. This means being proactive in your career to achieve financial success is more universally accepted across cultures, whereas the importance placed on being proactive to achieve a good work-life balance differs between cultures.

There are a number of explanations as to how culture has an influence on what is considered career success: culture affects how people interpret their own needs and values and therefore which career goals they are likely to focus on. Individuals shape their needs and perceptions based on interactions with others. This social influence affects how individuals evaluate their career. For example, a culture in which financial success is highly valued could cause individuals to believe that financial success should be important to them, causing them to subsequently direct their career goals towards achieving financial success.

Another explanation is that culture influences what information and resources we are exposed to, influencing the information retrieval component of proactive behaviour. Information from our environment indicates what we should consider as important. Therefore, the information we are exposed to through proactive career behaviours is likely to match whatever is considered important in our culture. For example, if we see that our culture, and others from it, value a good work-life balance, then we are more likely to strive for this. This contributes to individuals working towards career goals that are most compatible with the values and norms of the culture.

Work-life balance: a difficult goal to maintain

Although there was no significant relationship between work-life balance and proactive career behaviours, this does mean that the relationship wasn’t negative. This suggests that employees are not proactively attempting to advance their career in a way which is negatively impacting their work-life balance. This non-significant relationship may be due to the difficulty of maintaining the goal of achieving a good work-life balance, as it is not normally dependent on the efforts of just one person; you might be striving for a good work-life balance while others in your life, such as family or friends, are not.

Research into different cultural perceptions of success is important as career success is associated with greater life satisfaction and psychological well-being. Our findings suggest that proactive career behaviours generally pay off in terms of subjective financial success, regardless of culture. Such proactivity will be especially beneficial for employees in high power distance and low uncertainty avoidance cultures. For work-life balance, career proactivity is more likely to translate into a sense of career achievement in cultures with high in-group collectivism and humane orientation. Individuals should always exhibit career proactivity, but keep in mind how culture may influence the career goals interpreted as important and worthy of proactive behaviours.

Learning about cultural differences should be incorporated into MBA curricula as the world is becoming increasingly more connected and this makes understanding how to work with different cultures more important than ever. For future business leaders, who will be working with and employing people from all over the world, it is an integral area of study.  

Collaboration with other cultures

Collaborating effectively with those from other cultures necessitates an awareness that we all view success in different ways and that what’s important for one employee may not be as vital to another. Business leaders must understand this if they are to succeed.

Encouraging and supporting MBA students to become more proactive in managing their careers, meanwhile, is likely to improve their subjective career success. This can be beneficial for organisations because high career success can lead to lower turnover and increased support for organisational change. 

Although businesses and employees both benefit from being highly proactive, employees should not be allowed to run around recklessly. Any individual’s proactiveness in this regard needs to consider the effect they are having on both themselves and those around them. They might be working more proactively to achieve what they consider goals for success, but ultimately these might not be entirely beneficial for them, the company, and their colleagues, especially if they are neglecting their family life or not working as a team at work.

Anders Dysvik is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at the Department of Management and Organisation at BI Norwegian Business School.

This article was originally published in Ambition, the magazine of the Association of MBAs (AMBA).



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