Research Provides Insights into Cultural Factors Behind Positive Employee Attitudes and Behaviors
Culture is complicated, especially in the workplace. It serves as one of many factors contributing to everything from employee satisfaction to business earnings, the nature of how we collaborate and the pursuit of ever-increasing job performance.
However, the research is clear on one thing: Across cultures, we all want to feel that our organizations value our contributions and care about our well-being. When this happens, we feel better about our work, commit ourselves more to our employers and go above and beyond in pursuit of organizational goals.
That reaction – which stems from our sense of “perceived organizational support” – has been on the mind of the management department’s Lynn Shore for quite some time. She and a team of six other researchers pitted two leading theories – and two major cultures – against each other in order to figure out whether organizations in Western individualist societies or Eastern collectivist ones are able to produce greater gains when they make their employees feel supported and valued. And, just as importantly, why?
The team of researchers analyzed results from more than 800 independent studies spanning both cultures. They ultimately found that when organizations in Eastern societies improve their employees’ perceived organizational support it enhances workers’ behaviors and attitudes to a greater effect than in Western cultures.
“As a leader, if you want to have the best results with your employees, it’s incredibly important to understand culture.”
– Lynn Shore
The far-reaching implications of this work were recently recognized by the Academy of Management, a global professional organization for Management professors. In May, the AOM awarded Shore and her colleagues the International Human Resource Management Scholarly Research Award, sponsored by the organization’s HR Division.
“This is probably the most complex study I’ve ever done,” said Shore, who has been publishing research since the 1980s. “We really wanted to understand the psychological mechanisms underlying the positive effects of perceived organizational support and whether they varied cross-culturally.”
Social Exchange Theory vs. Social Identity Perspective
The two different theories Shore and her colleagues tested each credit a different psychological mechanism for causing the same result: employees translating perceived organizational support into improved behaviors and attitudes.
First, the Social Exchange Theory says that as individuals, people want to be respected, appreciated, and treated fairly by their organization. If they are, they return the favor by performing better, building trust and creating a reciprocal exchange dynamic.
Second, the Social Identity Perspective theorizes that people see themselves as being interconnected with their organizations when they feel supported, creating a sense that they’re part of the in-group. This shared identity creates a sense of shared success, contributing to employees’ willingness to increase their performance and even sacrifice personal goals for the sake of the group.
The team hypothesized – and subsequently confirmed – that in Eastern collectivist cultures the group-oriented social identity perspective would carry more weight, where in Western individualist cultures the reciprocal nature of the social-exchange theory would be a greater influence.
The reasons that perceived organizational support has a greater role in shaping the behaviors and attitudes of employees in Eastern-collectivist societies comes down to cultural context and the motivating forces at play. The first step toward making sense of why this happens starts with understanding how Eastern cultures differ from Western ones.
Individualism vs. Collectivism
In Eastern cultures – like China, South Korea, India, Turkey, and others – collectivism is the dominant force in how people self-identify.
“People emphasize interdependence and relationships with others, and the integrity of the in-group,” Shore said.
“Vertical-collectivistic cultures think about themselves as members of a group first and then as individuals second. It’s the opposite of horizontal-individualistic cultures, like the United States, where we identify as individuals first – the ways in which we’re unique and self-reliant – and we see ourselves as members of a group second.”
Western cultures – like the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and others – are considered “horizontal” cultures, with flat or low power distances.
“In low power distance cultures people tend to speak more informally with less, perhaps, deference to people who have more power, and so there’s an assumption of equality,” Shore said.
She saw these two cultural differences play out when interviewing local employees at an entrepreneurial company in China, where the culture is “vertical” with high power distances. The company’s American CEO made a habit of asking his subordinates for their opinions. Rather than being eager to offer their thoughts as perceived equals – which might be expected in a horizontal culture – the questions made them uncomfortable.
“To be asked their opinion implied that they had something more valuable to say than the CEO,” Shore explained. “They didn’t feel that they should be placed in that position.”
The Practical Implications
In Eastern cultures, organizations expressing care and value for their employees play to a deep-seeded desire among workers to be part of the in-group, and invaluable team member working toward something larger than themselves.
“Supervisors need to be especially aware of the influence they wield in vertical-collectivist cultures because their actions play a magnified role in shaping the way that employees develop a psychological attachment to the organization,” said Shore.
“If you’re in China or Singapore or Japan and you and your organization provide an environment of support, you’re going to see really strong returns from your employees in terms of positive attitudes and behaviors, more so than in a Western context,” she continued.
However, the dynamic shifts when you move into Western workplaces.
“In horizontal-individualistic cultures, managers need to pay specific attention to the role of organizational fairness and the type of individual support they give their employees – like offering development opportunities and avoiding role overload – while realizing that creating a sense of shared identity does still make a positive difference,” Shore said.
“As a leader, if you want to have the best results with your employees, it’s incredibly important to understand culture, to get comfortable with cultures that are not exactly the same as your own, and beyond getting comfortable, to even appreciate those cultural differences” said Shore. “You can really have impact on the organization through that understanding.”
Looking Beyond Western Concepts
The original idea of perceived organizational support was developed by U.S. researchers in the mid-1980s and was centered around reciprocity and the social exchange theory.
“We found in our study – and I think other studies will find the same thing – that some of the ideas that are created in the West don’t necessarily apply in Eastern cultures, or apply for different reasons,” said Shore. “There’s so many unanswered questions, and if managers don’t understand why certain things have positive or negative effects they’re not going to be successful in these other cultural contexts.”