Work Ethics writing down on notepad

The psychological context of cross-cultural work ethics

Posted on: July 28, 2023

In our increasingly globalised, international business environments, diverse workforces – consisting of team members from different cultural backgrounds, and with different life experiences – are commonplace.

While cultural diversity is undoubtedly a strength in the workplace, it nevertheless requires business leaders and managers with the skills to successfully navigate and balance cultural differences in order to lead teams and organisations effectively.

Variation in perceived work ethic is one such difference that may become evident in cross-cultural teams. While it’s important to avoid stereotyping, an understanding of business ethics – and how they vary between different cultures – can be valuable. It can help to inform and guide any number of management decisions and approaches, solve workplace dilemmas, and support wider intercultural and organisational management.

What is the psychology of work ethic?

The American Psychological Association’s definition of work ethic is, ‘an emphasis on the importance of work or other forms of effortful activity as a social, moral and psychological good. Associated attitudes include individualism, competitiveness and high personal expectations, with an emphasis on self-discipline, self-improvement and deferred gratification.’ As a term, work ethic originates from German sociologist Max Weber’s correlation between certain religious beliefs and Western capitalism, detailed in his book ‘The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’.

Work ethic is, for the most part, a result of our upbringing and the values we’ve inherited from antecedents, together with our experiences.

Is there a cultural context to work ethic?

The Hofstede Model of National Culture is a framework that seeks to understand the culture of a country based on its inherent cultural values:

  1. Power Distance Index – The degree to which less-powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally
  2. Collectivism vs. Individualism – A societal preference for either a close-knit social framework where the ‘greater good’ is prioritised or a loose-knit one in which individuals only look out for themselves and their immediate families
  3. Masculinity vs. Femininity – A societal preference for competitiveness, achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards or co-operation, modesty, caring for the weak, consensus-orientation and quality of life
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance – The degree to which a society feels comfortable with uncertainty or ambiguity; for example, should the future be controlled or should it simply play out?
  5. Long-Term Orientation – A societal preference for maintaining time-honoured traditional and norms or taking a pragmatic approach in preparing for the future
  6. Indulgence vs. Restraint – A societal preference for relatively free gratification of human drives related to enjoying life and having fun or suppression of these needs and regulation by way of strict social norms.

The model is designed to inform cross-cultural comparisons with the aim of facilitating and improving collaboration and communication across diverse cultures. It can help to identify how cultural psychology impacts organisational behaviour and business dealings. Each of the aspects has the potential to impact an employee’s individual work ethic and their perspective on, including:

  •   the value of work, and what types of work are important
  •   what ‘hard work’ and ‘workplace success’ looks like
  •   how a model employee should behave
  •   how they would like to be treated as an employee
  •   how their individual ethics play out in a work-related environments
  •   their interpersonal relationships and how they relate to colleagues and others at different levels of an organisation.

What are the consequences of different work ethics?

Cross-cultural studies and cross-cultural research indicated that businesses which fail to balance cultural differences can often experience conflict, miscommunication and, in the worst cases, hostility. In contrast, where organisational behaviour and approach addresses any cultural clashes, greater productivity and workforce innovation can be observed.

It’s easy to draw a parallel between team members who possess good work ethics – and the clear value they bring to organisations – and those who do not. Job site Indeed highlights a variety of personal qualities and characteristics that help to develop a strong work ethic in an individual:

  •   Accountability
  •   Discipline
  •   Honesty
  •   Humility
  •   Integrity
  •   Organisation
  •   High-quality work
  •   Responsibility
  •   Teamwork
  •   Time management.

Clearly, work environments where positive attributes are in abundance will fare far better than those where they are scarce.

From a cultural standpoint, one can pinpoint how differences in work code of ethics and work styles can have consequences for wider work culture. For example, in cultures: where long hours and productivity-at-any-cost is celebrated, burnout, poor work-life balance and employee ill health may feature; where pace of life is slower and people are more relaxed about working hours, productivity may take a hit; where obeying those in charge is unquestionable, employees voices and ideas may not be heard; where individual progress is celebrated, work relationships might be damaged and the collective good may suffer.

How can cultural differences in work ethic be managed?

  • Some interventions that could be implemented to support multinational teams with diverse ethical standards include:
  • gathering employee perspectives and points of view regarding work ethic, at both an individual level and organisational level. For example, assessing – via anonymous questionnaires or focus group respondents – what issues or barriers exist, and what changes could help
  • seek to understand the basis of various ethical principles, matching strengths and preferences with approach where possible/applicable – such as rewarding employees in ways that are meaningful and motivating for them as individuals
  • intercultural management training for leaders and supervisors
  • cultural onboarding training programmes, including unconscious bias training
  • opportunities for employees to connect with each other in different capacities

Improve intercultural management with an understanding of human behaviour and psychology

Want to understand how ethical issues related to globalisation impact organisational behaviour? Can economic development be enhanced by addressing differences in values?

Discover how individual differences in work ethic and cultural value can impact organisational behaviour with the University of Wolverhampton’s online MSc Organisational and Business Psychology programme.

You’ll gain specialist understanding of organisational and occupational psychology, together with key knowledge of business fundamentals, on a 100%-online course tailored to your individual interests and career goals. Develop as an evidence-based practitioner who champions ethical decision-making, drawing on key concepts across social psychology and social sciences. You’ll study topics including positive psychology & wellbeing, leadership, people & stakeholder management, strategy & marketing, operations & supply management, business sustainability, and much more.


No. 1 Ranked in the UK For Teaching first generation students
85% of research 'world-leading' or 'internationally important' (latest REF)
Online Psychology Master’s accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS)
22,000 A university of 22,000 students
1827 Providing education and opportunity since 1827