Why Employee Engagement Is Globally Misunderstood


When we talk about talent acquisition we tend to cast a wide net to find the people we’re looking for to move our businesses forward. One of the things that’s becoming an interesting addition to the conversation is the whole idea of a global workforce strategy.

Back in 2004, management guru Dave Ulrich said “for the first time in the history of management, it is the human mind that is the primary creator of value. The quality of people and their engagement will be critical factors in corporate vitality and survival.”

We tend to be insular when we talk about engagement in North America and Western Europe. We assume our notions are accepted worldwide, which it is, to an extent. There’s certainly a level of interest in developing countries. A quick search on Google Trends indicates employee engagement is top of mind in India. In fact, Google searches for employee engagement come from India more than any other country in the world. Why would this be?  India has a population of 1.31 billion and is set to surpass China as the most populous country by 2022. Well, it’s not so much that India’s employers can’t find people to do the work. It’s that they can’t find people with the right skills to do the work.

Globalization Threatens Huge Talent Shortages

Skill gaps are a growing concern. Economies are booming. Technologies are evolving. Demand for new and different skill sets is growing. When an employer in India finds the right fit, they really want to keep those people in their workplace. One of the ways they’re doing this is through employee engagement initiatives.

What’s important to understand, however, is that not all countries (or individuals for that matter) view engagement through the same lens. Taking a closer look at world engagement trends, what’s interesting is the fairly high levels of employee engagement in G20 countries. Britain and Germany share a 14% rate of engagement, France and Canada,15%. Noticeably, India’s rate is much higher, at 17% with China leading the way at almost 20%.

What influences and drives people to have a higher sense of engagement? Much of it depends on cultural dimensions, societal points of view.

  • Power Distance is one of the biggest cultural influencers. “I’m at the bottom of the totem pole and my CEO is at the very top and there’s a large distance between me and him or her.” Power distance thinking tends to be more prevalent in hierarchical organizations where less powerful employees accept that power is distributed unequally. A smaller power distance is typically found in more flat organizations. Socially, China, for example, has a very high power distance where Britain and the U.S. have a much lower power distance. On the power distance index, engagement drivers might involve recognition from leadership for some, and a more participative decision-making process for others.
  • The same thing applies when you look at Individualistic and Collective. Individualistic cultures tend to be much more focused on looking after themselves and their direct family, where collective societies are really looking at how, as a group, they can take care of everybody and move things forward.  The U.S. tends to have a very individualistic society, very much the independent, lone cowboy type of mindset, where autonomy is valued. Asian countries like Japan, China, Korea and Taiwan are considered collectivistic. Teamwork is a stronger driver for people from collective oriented countries.
  • Masculine Feminine values weigh heavily in African and Middle Eastern countries which bear a direct correlation to engagement drivers. A woman in the workplace, particularly one in a position of power, would not be well received in patriarchal societies like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, Chad, Mali or Mauritania and could have a disruptive workforce impact. Conversely #Me Too and Times Up campaigns reflect cultural environments where feminine values are generally accepted (and gaining on a once masculine-dominated mindset). In societies where these campaigns have surfaced, equality in compensation, career growth and development become important engagement drivers.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance is the extent to which members of a society attempt to cope with anxiety by minimizing outcomes and conditions that are unknown or unpredictable.  A low score on the uncertainty avoidance index indicates people from this culture are more comfortable with ambiguity, more entrepreneurial, more likely to take risks, and less dependent on structure and rules. Examples of countries with low uncertainty avoidance scores include the United States, England and Countries with high uncertainty avoidance scores such as Korea and Russia, desire more stability, more structured rules and social norms, and are less comfortable taking risks.
  • Long-Term vs Short-Term orientation is composed of two sets of values. Long-term orientation is directed toward the future and is dynamic. Conversely, short-term orientation is directed to the past or present and is more static. A country with a higher long-term rating in this cultural dimension tends to encourage pragmatic innovation and adaptation. These societies see modern education as a necessity for future success. China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Korea rate high on this index. Countries with a short-term orientation have more connectedness to time-honored traditions and norms. Developing Latin American nations tend to have short-term ratings and build their business practices on what has worked before. From an engagement perspective people with high long-term orientation value thrift, effort, and responsibility to obligations, while those with short-term orientation have strong convictions and emphasize rights and values.

A solid global workforce strategy needs to understand why and how views of engagement differ around the world. With high demand skills crossing borders physically and digitally, the future success of any organization will depend on attracting a diverse body of talent that can be engaged to bring innovative ideas, perspectives and views to their work.

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