• 7 minute read

Are You Satisfied With Your Job? The Cultural Effect on Empowerment and Motivation

Au, Kevin Yuk-fai(區玉輝), Hui, Michael King-man(許敬文)

When we feel empowered, we tend to perform better. Empowerment is an important motivation to staff. However, will people in different cultures be motivated in the same way?

By Mabel Sieh, Managing Editor, China Business Knowledge @ CUHK

Empowerment and Work Satisfaction

When we feel empowered, we tend to perform better. Empowerment provides employees with the ability to make decisions and the discretionary power over how they perform their work and offer services to others. In the workplace, empowerment is considered an important motivation to staff. And what about people from China as compared to those in a western culture? Will they be motivated in the same or a different way? A research done by Professor Kevin Au and Professor Michael Hui at CUHK Business School, together with their collaborators at Hong Kong Baptist University, have explored the relationship between empowerment and work satisfaction in two different cultures. Their study titled “The moderating effect of collectivistic orientation in psychological empowerment and job satisfaction relationship” examines the hospital industry in China and Canada, with results revealing how collectivistic value plays a role in the relationship between empowerment and job satisfaction.

The Cultural Effect on Empowerment

Though providing employees with flexibility, autonomy, and discretion to serve customers is generally considered a positive and empowering tool which can bring about better quality service, the approach of empowerment is never universal or identical. Some cross-cultural studies have shown that the unique norms and values inherent in different cultures affect how employees are motivated. In Western countries where individualism is highly valued, employers will tend to focus more on individual attributes and competencies. On the other hand, people in Asian cultures are brought up to value harmonious relationships, and hence tend to view performance as a team effort. Due to these cultural differences, the empowerment practices considered effective in one country may not be suitable in another cultural setting.

How people interpret their work tasks and form cognitions from their objective reality will affect the level of their empowerment. Some individuals feel empowered when they interpret and perceive their work as meaningful and see themselves having the freedom to determine their work. On the contrary, others feel disempowered if they perceive their work as meaningless, redundant and impossible to get done. Given the interpretative and cognitive nature of psychological empowerment, individuals with different collectivistic values are expected to react differently at their work environment.

Individuals with a high collectivistic orientation are people who are more aligned with a group-based perspective. They process work related information in a manner that combines both attributes of the task with those of the social context, reflecting a context-dependent processing style. In contrast, low collectivistic individuals see themselves as unique and independent. When processing work related information, they focus solely on the attributes of the task and in doing so detach from the context, reflecting a context-independent processing style. As a result, individuals with high versus low collectivistic values differ in their interpretations of psychological empowerment and its effects.

The Four Cognitions of Empowerment

According to previous research, psychological empowerment can be manifested through four psychological cognitions: meaning, competence, self-determination and impact.


Meaning at work is defined as the fit between one’s job requirements and values, beliefs and behaviors. When employees are able to derive personal meaning from their job, they will be motivated and a higher level of job satisfaction will be resulted.


The dimension of competence is a belief that one possesses the skills and abilities necessary to perform a job well. Lacking competence leads to anxiety and avoidance behavior. Unlike meaning which influences job satisfaction derived from work nature, competence affects employee satisfaction level by altering their interpretation of the level of difficulty they encounter during the course of work. A satisfactory work experience results when employees feel that they are capable of handling assignments from customers or supervisors independently.


Self-determination refers to the feeling of having control over one’s work. It addresses the employee’s need for autonomy during the course of work. Self-determination helps to release employees from management constraints and provides a solution to their role conflict. It can reduce their stress and unleash their suppressed professional decisions, hence improving work satisfaction.


Impact refers to the degree to which an individual can influence his or her work outcomes. Unlike self-determination, the dimension of impact addresses the outcome of work rather than the autonomy of employees during the course of work.

The Study and Findings

Part of a larger survey, this study was administered in Toronto, Canada and in Beijing, China on hundreds of service employees working in luxury hotels where a high quality of workforce are very important, and customers’ service demands are higher and employees are expected to go extra mile to serve their customers who are more likely to make special service requests.

As expected, the study confirms that the Chinese respondents have a higher collectivistic orientation than their Canadian counterparts.

In regard to the four conditions for empowerment, the study shows that for the Canadian sample, that is, the low collectivistic group, work meaning and impact are important in enabling their feeling of empowerment but competence and self-determination are not significant. On the other hand, for the Chinese employees, or the high collectivistic group, results show that work meaning, competence and self-determination are all significant but not impact.

“For employees from highly collectivistic societies, such as China, Japan, and Korea, who are more group-oriented and less confident in making decisions on their own, training which fosters self-competence in decision-making is recommended.” – Prof. Kevin Au

In terms of self-determination, the results reveal that having autonomy at work was regarded as significant among the Chinese employees, but not so for the Canadians. This could be explained that based on their interdependent and interconnected orientations, the high collectivistic employees (the Chinese) are more willing to suppress their personal opinions and confirm to organizational norms. On the contrary, the pressure to suppress their professional role is relatively limited for low collectivists (the Canadians), as these individuals consider autonomy and freedom at work as a norm and basic right rather than an exception. Hence, for the Canadians, self-determination does not serve as a great motivator for them at work, compared to their Chinese counterparts.

As for impact, the results show that its effect is weakened by the high collectivistic orientation among the Chinese employees. Work impact is not regarded by these employees as an important source of satisfaction as they tend to believe that successful work outcomes are attributable to the group they belong, and that taking personal credits will be detrimental to the harmony within the group. However, the Canadians come from a culture which embraces individual ability and contribution, and therefore view themselves as ultimately responsible for the job outcomes. For these low collectivistic individuals, impact matters.

Managerial implications

This study further reveals that the effects of multi-dimensional psychological empowerment are mixed: Its positive effect on job satisfaction depends on the collectivistic orientation of employees. In order to maximize the benefits of psychological empowerment, management should not rely on a universal or standardized empowerment program. Instead, they must align empowerment programs to employee values and cognitive orientations.

“For employees from highly collectivistic societies, such as China, Japan, and Korea, who are more group-oriented and less confident in making decisions on their own, training which fosters self-competence in decision-making is recommended,” says Prof. Au. “On the other hand, for employees from low collectivistic cultures, such as Canada and the United States, recognition programs are likely to be more effective as these programs allow frontline employees with the ability to exercise their own judgment when interacting with customers.”

The findings are particularly relevant to service- and relationship-oriented hotels, which strive to deliver service excellence to their customers.

“When frontline employees are encouraged to freely interact with their customers on a more personal level, this personalization and customization of service not only enhances the quality of customer service but also the intrinsic value of the job,” says Prof. Au.

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