Recognizing Across Cultural Borders

April 23, 2014 Darcy Jacobsen

Recognition networkDoes recognition still seem to your managers to be a peculiar or very American idea? Do you worry about finding the right words for recognizing employees around the world without faux pas? Are you recognizing in a way that makes sense to you, or in a way that is authentic and meaningful to your global employees?

Yesterday we talked about three important cultural variables for curating a global work culture: holistic vs. specific culture, monochronic or polychronic culture, and individualistic vs. collectivist culture.

When it comes to recognition, all three of those dimensions strongly impact how recognition is perceived and how it should be approached.  Because it was quickly adopted in the U.S, recognition is sometimes seen as the invention of an individualistic, monochronic and specific culture. Unfortunately some shortsighted leaders still preemptively dismiss it as irrelevant or hypothetically ineffective for workers in countries outside of North America.

This couldn’t be a bigger mistake.

It’s true that recognition resonates strongly in the U.S, and is a major driver of engagement and job satisfaction. But recognition resonates just as powerfully throughout the rest of the world. In fact, Globoforce has more users on our recognition platform outside the U.S. than inside it. And those are active users who enthusiastically embrace recognition–in places like Asia, Europe and South America.

Recognition, after all, is simply a message of encouragement and thanks. That translates into any culture and motivates every employee.

Recognition, scholars agree, is a fundamental human need, and one that people—of all cultures—tend to experience most strongly at work. This is a need that spans cultural and national boundaries, and speaks directly to our own sense of personhood. It is appropriate everywhere. But you need to pick your words and recognition reasons in ways that reflect the values of your recipient. If recognition ever feels inauthentic outside of the U.S, therefore, it isn’t a problem with recognition, but with how we are choosing to express our appreciation to people from that culture.

For example, a recognition message given to someone in China that emphasizes a specific individual success and personal advancement and will be much less effective than one which instead shows the connection between the employee’s work and the overall success of the team, and emphasizes the achievement within a context of shared values, and goals.

It’s important that we understand the cultural factors at work across our companies, so that we are recognizing in a way that will be most impactful, and most clearly “heard” by employees. We must have a clear handle on the cultural factors that impact that language. The vehicle will be the same, but the message must be adapted.

Brandeis professor Andy Molinsky has written a terrific book called Global Dexterity which breaks some of these cultural factors down into six variables. All of them may impact how we recognize:

  • Directness: How straightforward you’re expected to communicate in a particular situation. Are you expected to say exactly what you want to say, or to “hint” at something in a more indirect manner?
  • Enthusiasm: How much emotion and energy you are expected to show when communicating. Can you express how you feel, or is it more appropriate to hide your positive feelings?
  • Formality: The amount of deference and respect you are expected to display with your communication style. Are you expected to show a high level of respect when communicating with someone in a particular situation, or can you be more informal?
  • Assertiveness: How strongly are you expected or allowed to voice your opinion and advocate your point of view in a particular culture and in a particular situation in that culture. Should you be forthright in expressing yourself, or work at hiding or sublimating your point of view?
  • Self-promotion: The extent to which you can speak positively about yourself in a given cultural situation. Should you actively promote your positive qualifications or be more self-effacing?
  • Personal disclosure: The extent to which it is appropriate to reveal personal information about yourself to others. Should you be open or is it more appropriate to hide those personal details?

Here’s an example from his book, of the US and India.

  U.S. India
Directness High Low
Enthusiasm High Low
Assertiveness High Low
Self-promotion High Low
Formality Low High
Personal Disclosure High Low


A note of caution here: Molinsky makes it clear that we should not over-generalize. Each industry, profession, regions, etc. have their own cultural norms, he has said, “so it would be misleading to present the values of a society as being uniform.” He suggests that companies examine their own work groups individually to arrive at the most nuanced understanding possible.

Sometimes, however, generalization is necessary to push us in the right direction. I’ve seen a host of great materials along these lines for doing business across borders, and some for leading teams across them… but next to nothing about how to express recognition and appreciation in a way that will resonate across cultural lines.

To that end we are beginning a series of posts called “Recognizing across Cultures.” On a region by region basis, we will use the various frameworks above to discuss some of the cultural norms and give you some specific recommendations for making recognition relevant and powerful.

Over the next weeks and months, look for this banner (with various country names under it):

Recognizing Across Borders

We will break the posts down by country, and each post will include the following:

  • We will flag whether a country is holistic or specific, monochronic or polychronic, and individualistic or collectivist in culture.
  • We will show where a culture stands on Molinksy’s grid. 
  •  We briefly give a country’s demographic overview, including whether they have a homogenous or multicultural population–and also consider turnover and tenure rates where available.
  • We will discuss the business culture in a nutshell, including attitudes toward change and attitudes toward materialism and gifts which may impact recognition and reward.
  • We will frame exactly why recognition matters for workers in that region, and how you can show local managers the intrinsic relevance and power of recognition in their culture.
  • And finally, we will give a brief primer on how to recognize most effectively in that culture, including tone, focus and word choice.

We plan to cover a range of regions and countries, including not only countries that serve as headquarters for the global Fortune 500, but also the hottest spots for outsourcing. We hope you will find the series useful and welcome your feedback and suggestions–including countries you’d like to see profiled.

Are your global workers really hearing what you’re saying?
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