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Business Across Cultures: Employee Motivation

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An expatriate manager asking about Indonesian employee motivation recently sent me the following question:

Can you advise me how I can motivate my employees towards work without giving them financial alteration? Any strategy? I keep trying to explain to them how I work. Why we need to build our company and make money. They never understand WHY they are working and what for. Most of them have no motivation towards how they can improve themselves at work. I believe in this world that 'motivation' is the key to having a direct effect on change and a company's growth and financial outcome in the long term. Any suggestion/comments?

Employee motivation is one of the most important topics in my programs. It goes to the core of many an expatriate manager's role while working in Indonesia. People are motivated by many different factors, of course. Expatriate managers working here may be motivated by the prospect of future promotion, high living standards, overseas experience, adventure, and many other factors.

Indonesian managers, however, are working in their own country and are working in their own cultural support systems. Motivation differs between Indonesian business culture and standard Western business culture. In Indonesia, where business is always personal, motivation depends strongly, but not unsurprisingly, on more personal factors than those of the West.

Family, religion, health, and other so-called personal factors often determine an Indonesian manager's performance on a daily basis. Western preoccupation with money as the prime mover in work performance does not apply well to Indonesia. Of course, Western employees do not just work for the money, either. There are many other factors that determine job satisfaction. However, there is definitely a strong belief in the West that rewarding extra performance by offering second shifts, authorizing overtime payments, increasing appraisal bonuses, and giving other financial incentives are an effective and time-tested method of motivating employees. Unfortunately, that Western belief as applied to Indonesian business culture is one of the main causes of confusion and frustration.

In Indonesia, money is, of course, very important. It is closely tied to position, being an indicator of one's status. However, it is not the sole indicator, nor is it closely tied to one's job performance in many Indonesian managers' perceptions.

Status comes from the position. When one has a senior, powerful position, one gains the accoutrements of power. These include company cars and handphones, golf club memberships, nice houses and vacations, and, of course, money. These indicators of wealth stem and flow from the position, not from the performance.

A government official with an expensive house and two imported cars is considered successful albeit with the sources of wealth not being closely examined. Increasing wealth is not normally tied to outstanding performance. This public sector example remains a model for private sector employees as well.

Indonesian employees are motivated by the appearance of increasing status. Western ideas of connecting performance to salary are not well understood. Promotion, therefore increasing wealth and status, should be based on loyalty and seniority, not work performance in the minds of most managers.

Indonesian managers are also motivated by their loyalty to a superior. By maintaining and developing personal relationships between superior and subordinate, you develop the basis for the motivation of the employee to contribute more to the success of the company as embodied by his or her superior.

Periodic, verbal explanations to your employees about how you work, how you believe the company should be built, and how you believe you can all make more money by working together, will normally not be sufficient motivation to change entrenched behavior. It will garner words of approval and optimism, but seldom generate change.

Western business people have a very strong future-time sense. Indonesian employees normally have a very strong past- and present-time sense. The cause and effect of performance for bonuses is often vaguely understood. If an Indonesian employee has enough money to cover present expenses and desires, offering more money solely based on future performance will not usually affect motivation. It is often the case that an employee who receives a performance bonus will not continue at a high level of performance until further funds are needed thus confusing the expatriate manager expecting a Pavlovian stimulus-response reflex.

For most mid-level Indonesian managers in private companies, the WHY of 'why things happen' is considered beyond the prerogative and comprehension of mere mortals. The WHY is a matter for the bosses.

In summary, most Indonesian employees are motivated by two factors: Gengsi (appearance), here being the appearance of increasing status; and Asal Bapak Senang (keep the boss happy), in this case working diligently to please their superior.

An expatriate manager should motivate Indonesian subordinates by showing an understanding of Indonesian business culture, by giving paternalistic protection, by instructing their subordinates on the proper and desired method of behavior in the company clearly and regularly, and by giving support and encouragement (including emergency financial aid) without having to be asked.

These outward signs of a mature and productive superior-subordinate relationship are all that sophisticated and experienced expatriate managers in Indonesia normally need display to get the desired effectiveness and productivity from their staff.

This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield, III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.

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