What constitutes career success for you?

Written by
Anders Dysvik, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, BI Norwegian Business School

29 Mar 2020

29 Mar 2020 • by Anders Dysvik, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, BI Norwegian Business School

Business leaders must understand the cultural variations in what motivates workers, writes Anders Dysvik, professor of organisational behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School. 

In the modern workplace, where the proportion of contingent workers is increasing and flexible working is becoming more common, people are expected to be more proactive in managing their own careers. This is associated with career success — which makes perfect sense: if you are more proactive in your efforts to progress in your career, you are more likely to achieve your goals. But what do you consider success? 

One person might view a pay rise as a great indicator of their success, while, for another, it’s the ability to achieve work-life balance. Such variations in how we perceive success may be down to cultural differences. 

Exploring cultural attitudes

My global research into this found that, overall, workers are more likely to be proactive in seeking financial success than work-life balance. However, the relative significance varied according to cultural attitudes. 

Those cultures that placed a stronger emphasis on financial success tended to be more tolerant of uncertainty, meaning that they are better at accepting change and more willing to take risks; they included countries in Latin America and Eastern Europe, including Brazil and Georgia. 

An emphasis on financial success was also noted in countries with distinct power differentials (those that accept that there is an unequal distribution of authority and power), such as Japan and China. These cultures are characterised by strong hierarchies and limited social mobility. 

Meanwhile, achieving work-life balance was given a higher priority in countries (including the UK, Turkey, Australia and Zimbabwe) that placed a strong emphasis on human factors such as wellbeing and equality. 

A tendency to prioritise teamwork, collaboration and common goals would seem to indicate that a culture prioritises work-life balance, and that workers in these countries would perceive a strong pursuit of financial success to be selfish. In actual fact, they also put an emphasis on financial success. 

This might be because people believe that individuals will use their financial success to benefit others. In collectivist countries such as China, India and Nigeria, a poor work-life balance is often considered to be the inevitable cost of providing for your family. 

Conforming to the norm

All this shows that culture affects how individuals decide which career goals to focus on. People tend to engage in behaviour that they consider the norm; if others from the same culture prioritise financial success, they will tend to prioritise it too. 

With the world growing ever-more connected, understanding how to work with different cultures is increasing in relevance. For example, organisations with an international workforce cannot assume that all their workers prioritise the same things or measure success in identical ways. 

People feel more satisfied and experience enhanced wellbeing when they perceive themselves to be successful, so it is vital to understand how workers from different cultures prioritise different career goals. Business leaders must realise this if their organisations are to thrive in today’s interconnected, global marketplace. 

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