I/ii: "why Do We Work So Hard?” Motivation and Reward Across Different Cultures

The three great essentials to achieve anything worthwhile are, first, hard work; second, stick-to-itiveness; third, common sense 


Thomas A. Edison


Why do we work hard? What are the driving forces behind someone’s strong work ethic, and what would be an effective reward system for a multi-national workforce?


Motivation, the process that initiates and defines goal-oriented attitudes and behaviours, is usually culture-bound: while motivating all the employees within an organization may not be an achievable task, understanding what drives different individuals according to their cultural background would be an important step in the right direction.


In this article we are going to explore some commonalities and some major differences between the US and Japan, two societies that value hard work and long work hours, both classified as “masculine cultures” according to Hofstede’s cultural dimension theory [1].


According to data collected by the OECD across its member countries, in 2018 people in the United States worked on average 1,786 hrs, while in Japan they worked on average 1,680 hrs (“average annual hours worked is defined as the total number of hours actually worked per year divided by the average number of people in employment per year [2]). Furthermore, surveys conducted by the US Travel Association and Expedia Japan show that both American and Japanese workers don’t take enough holidays during the year.


So, what are the similarities between these two societies in terms of work ethic, and what are the characteristics of a “masculine” culture in a workplace related scenario?


Highly competitive, hierarchical and ego driven, “masculine” cultures show a preference for power and strength and a tendency to strive for success and affirmation. Long work hours are the norm, workers are expected to be ambitious and to aim for career progression within the organization, the stress level is usually high. Results, career development, performance feedback are common priorities.


At first glance, it may appear that both US and Japanese nationals share the same drive to compete and to succeed in the workplace. There is however a major difference that sets them apart: capitalist values coupled with strong individualistic tendencies on one side, a collectivist mindset on the other.


An article about hard work and happiness written by an American career coach for the Huffington Post reads:


Have you ever wondered why you work so hard? Why getting the next promotion, the biggest bonus or the highest praise is so important to your sense of accomplishment? Why you wake up every day determined to work harder to be better than you were the day before? Why the incessant drive for more and more success both energizes and exhausts you?

Enter society's standards. How much money you earn, where you live, how many children you have -- I'm exhausted even writing about society's high standards for success! But we keep it up, we work harder, we strive to be the best, to have the best and to provide the best. Most of us do find some happiness in this continual uphill climb -- until the day when we ask ourselves, "Why do I work so hard? and the answer doesn't make us happy anymore.

We don't know how to enjoy what we have because there is always something better around the corner. Working hard reaps the greatest rewards when you are enhancing your life and the life of those around you. Years of chasing the life of a successful corporate executive was extremely hard work, until I started chasing my success as a life coach.”


Meanwhile, to understand the Japanese business ethics, we must take into account that:


- the Japanese term for “economy” is keizai, a compound word composed of two parts: Kei, that means “governing the world in harmony”, and zai, that means “bringing about the well-being of the people.”


- the Japanese term for “business” is keiei, another compound word that combines the terms Kei (the shortened version of keizai) and ei, that means “making ceaseless efforts to achieve” [3]


The Japanese worker is therefore highly driven and ambitious, while displaying a strong group-orientation at the same time.


Let’s now take a look at the main characteristics of individualistic and collectivist cultures (full deck on the cultural dimension of Individualism/Collectivism available here).


Individualistic cultures:


- the focus is on “I”


- personal priorities, individual achievements and self-realization are important


- people are expected to take care of themselves and a few loved ones and to take responsibility for the outcomes


Collectivist cultures:


- the focus is on “We”


- collective interests, social harmony and loyalty are important


- the group takes care of individuals, individuals are loyal to the group they belong to


Finally, let’s watch a video by news-media company Asian Boss, featuring Japanese nationals sharing their thoughts about a four-day work week.


“How exactly do Japanese people feel about this kind of work-life balance?”


Let’s find out:


Some of the responses include:


- “First of all, there is no distinction between work and personal life. Work is the purpose of your life. Life is about how you worked your entire life and leaving your legacy behind at the end"


- “A four day work week is something that Japanese people would never approve of”


- “Japanese people have that herd mentality, so we find working together very important. So if someone takes more days off, that person is almost seen as cheating and getting out of doing more work


It can be concluded that while that the the American/Westerner idea of success revolves around wealth, social status, material possessions, self-fulfillment, with workers striving to achieve personal goals, for the Japanese/Easterner worker the needs of the organization, of the group, come before individual ambitions.


[The second part of this article will be online next week]




1. Hofstede, G. (1997). “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind”, 2nd edition, McGraw-Hill, New York

2.  Online: https://data.oecd.org/emp/hours-worked.htm

3. Taka, I. (1997). “Business ethics in Japan”. Journal of Business Ethics, 16(14), 1499-1508. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1023/A:1005850728406.pdf

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