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Motivation Across Cultures

Michael Gates

One of the most inspirational leadership training companies I know is Olivier Mythodrama , founded by Richard Olivier, son of Laurence Olivier. Rather than modern theories, they use ancient texts – especially Shakespeare – to get the message across powerfully and imaginatively. Contributor Michael Gates, Vice Chairman of Richard Lewis Communications.

Look, for instance, at Henry V’s St. Crispian’s Day speech to the English army before the Battle of Agincourt, which motivates by describing the pride we will feel once we have succeeded:

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’

Motivation, at heart, isn’t something that changes over the centuries, even if we are trying to encourage our staff rather than the ranks of English archers.  Painting images of what life will be like when we have won is a classic motivational technique.

In modern times, a great example of Shakespearean eve of battle inspirational rhetoric was Colonel Tim Collins’ speech in Iraq, quoted here in full:

The opening ‘we go to liberate, not to conquer’, even echoes Mark Antony’s line ‘I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him’.

But while there are certain universals in motivation, as organisations internationalise and globalise we also need to be aware of cultural variations.

Americans tend (and in talking about culture one always has to say ‘tend’ or ‘in general’) to be motivated by a ‘pumping up’ technique. If you’ve never seen it, it’s worth checking out former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s address to his sales managers which is evangelical in its emotional fervour – like the corporate version of Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at the recent royal wedding. This style doesn’t always get a positive reception from Brits. Remember the wonderfully puzzled, amused or grim expressions on certain members of the congregation.

At a corporate level, I remember observing a meeting where the American boss singled out a British manager who had done a good job and tried to get everyone to whoop and cheer. The only ones doing so were the other Americans in the room, and the Brits all looked embarrassed.

British managers often use humour and understatement to get people on board, with phrases like ‘I’ve seen worse…’ when the figures have exceeded all expectations. An American would probably find this depressing, expecting words like ‘awesome’ or ‘phenomenal’.

Indians, with their strong sense of hierarchy, have frequently told me they would rather have a more important title on their business card than a higher salary. I recently heard of an Indian manager, in charge of a small team of 5, going to his boss and asking if he could have one more person on his team, as his cousin had 6 staff reporting to him. To motivate your Indian colleague to stick to deadlines, it could be a good idea to write an email praising her for a job well done and cc her boss, then rely on the improved relationship you will have with her from then on to get things done.

One of the more unusual motivational styles I have seen is in Finland (I live in Helsinki), where leaders will characteristically do the opposite of painting a rosy picture of what life will be like once we have succeeded. On many occasions, I have noticed they will paint a bleak picture of what life will be like if we fail!  Along the lines of ‘you will come into work one day and the receivers will be there; you will lose your job, be unable to pay your bills, and your house will be re-possessed…’

It is tapping into Finnish ‘sisu’ – stubborn persistence, grit, and a determination to prove you can succeed against the odds. Psychologists studying persuasion have found that people tend to be more powerfully persuaded by arguments which outline what they could lose by not doing something, than by arguments about what they will gain by doing it. It’s the idea, expressed here by Schopenhauer that pain is more powerful than pleasure: “Pleasure is never as pleasant as we expected it to be and pain is always more painful. The pain in the world always outweighs the pleasure. If you don’t believe it, compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is eating the other.”

The Dutch Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD, Manfred Kets de Vries -though not referring specifically to this ‘negative motivation’ technique – has written that he admires Finnish managers above all, so perhaps those Finns are onto something. De Vries was thinking more of their lack of ego and narcissism in favour of a more realistic and humble approach.

And humility is a great virtue to have when encountering other cultures. In HR a good message to get across to leaders of international teams would be – don’t assume what you find motivating will always work with people with different ways of behaving and communicating and diverse values and beliefs from your own.

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