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What Is ‘Success’? Your Answer Might Depend On Your Culture

Some define success by climbing the career ladder or earning more money, but research shows that work-life balance is more important to many
Some define success by climbing the career ladder or earning more money, but research shows that work-life balance is more important to many
  • Financial success is considered most important cross-culturally
  • The importance placed on work-life balance varies between cultures
  • High success at work benefits both employees and organisations

In Japan, there is a term called karoshi which translates to “overwork death”. The term was coined in the 1970s and refers to the increasing number of Japanese workers dying from heart attacks or strokes related to overworking.

This concept is seen throughout East Asian countries: China calls it guolaosi and South Korea calls it gwarosa. In 2018, South Korea even had to introduce a law reducing the maximum working hours from 68 to 52 per week to help boost the country’s productivity and the number of children being born.

This could be because, in Asian cultures, financial success is considered incredibly important and worth proactively working towards; more so than certain countries in the West. Meanwhile, work-life balance is considered less important, which may explain why overworking to death has become commonplace enough to get its own word. This cultural difference in what is considered success and worthy of working towards is demonstrated in research from BI Norwegian Business School.

Anders Dysvik, Professor of Organisational Behaviour, conducted a study on the relationship between proactive career behaviours and two measures of career success – financial success and work-life balance. Proactive career behaviours include the efforts employees make to progress in their career and achieve what they deem as success.

They surveyed employees from 22 different countries and found that, in general, employees were more likely to be proactive in their career to achieve financial success over a good work-life balance. However, the level of importance attributed to financial success versus work-life balance differed among cultures.

Although being proactive to achieve financial success was important across all cultures, it was highest in those with strong hierarchies and limited upward social mobility, such as Japan and China. In fact, these cultures often consider sacrificing a good work-life balance as an inevitable cost for pursuing financial stability for their family. It was also high in cultures most comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, such as those in Latin America or Eastern Europe.

In comparison, striving for work-life balance was considered more important to cultures that prioritise common group goals over personal goals and that reward those who are selfless and caring towards others, such as the UK, the US, and Australia.

This is reflected in the idea of a four-day working week which has gained popularity in recent years, especially in the West, as a way to improve work-life balance. In the UK, Portsmouth-based law firm, Portcullis Legals, converted to a four-day working week whilst increasing pay. They documented a number of benefits including improved productivity, reduced stress levels amongst staff, and higher satisfaction from clients.

In response to the COVID pandemic, Spanish political party Más País has even announced a trial of a four-day working week. This could result in Spain becoming the first country in the world to abandon the traditional five-day working week. As the world looks toward a future after the pandemic, perhaps a four-day working week will improve work-life balance for many.

Professor Dysvik says, “There are a number of explanations as to how culture influences what is considered career success. Firstly, culture affects how people interpret their own needs and values and therefore which career goals they are likely to focus on. For example, a culture where financial success is highly valued may lead individuals to believe that financial success should be important to them and focus their career goals on achieving financial success.

“Another explanation is that the information we take in from our environment is affected by culture and indicates what we should consider as important. Therefore, information we can obtain through proactive career behaviours and working hard are likely to match whatever is considered important in our culture. For example, if information from our culture tells us we should value a good work-life balance, then this is what we will strive for.”

Understanding what contributes to different ideas of career success is important as it is linked to greater life satisfaction and psychological well-being. This study suggests that being proactive at work is beneficial to achieving financial success, regardless of where you’re from. However, for work-life balance, proactivity is more likely to lead to a sense of success in some cultures more than others.

Organisations managing employees across countries and cultures would also benefit from understanding how culture influences behaviours and career goals as high career success can lead to lower turnover intentions and increased support for organisational change. Creating a work environment that supports and rewards proactivity, taking into account the impact of cultures on what is considered success, would then be beneficial for employees and organisations.

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