An initial look at motivations & personality traits of American construction professionals working for international firms


Dating back to the early twentieth century, the relationship between people and their work has long attracted psychologists and other behavioral scientists. Currently, the study of motivation forms an essential part of both industrial-organizational psychology and vocational psychology. However, in the aforementioned fields, concepts like need, motive, and attitude are appearing with greater regularity than are notions of aptitude, ability, and skill (Wiley, 1997). Motivation, according to Ramlall (2004), has often been defined as “the willingness to exert high levels of effort toward organizational goals, conditioned by the effort’s ability to satisfy some individual need”. In this circumstance, a need is some internal state of being in which certain outcomes may appear more attractive than others. Furthermore, if the need remains unsatisfied, tension is created, which, in turn, stimulates a drive within the individual (Ramlall, 2004).

On the other hand, motivation is often described as the degree to which an individual wants and chooses to engage in certain specified behaviors. There are many different theories that suggest different reasoning, but a vast majority emphasizes an individual, deliberate choice of behavior analysis (Mitchell, 1982). The late psychologists A.H. Maslow and Frederick Herzberg organized human needs and motivations into differing categories. According to Maslow’s Theory of Human Motivation, humans are motivated by five levels of needs: (1) physiological (food, shelter, sex, etc.), (2) safety, (3) social, (4) ego, and (5) self-actualization, in ascending order (Kovach, 2001).

Contrary to Maslow’s theory, Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory divides need satisfaction into two factors: extrinsic and intrinsic. According to Herzberg, extrinsic factors, such as salary, working conditions, and job security, will merely prevent dissatisfaction, but do not necessarily guarantee job satisfaction if met. On the other hand, intrinsic factors, such as work itself, achievement, and recognition are motivators in and of themselves (Kovach, 2001).


As the world becomes smaller and U.S. businesses expand internationally to compete in the global economy, staffing operations are becoming more complex. One of the tactics used by multinational corporations is to implement expatriate programs. Unfortunately, many of these overseas assignments are unsuccessful, in which a significant number of managers return home prematurely from their projects (Borstorff, Feild, Giles, & Harris,1997).

Looking at this issue more exclusively, construction and design professionals that work on international projects face many challenges, so it makes sense that it would take a unique individual to truly be successful and see the assignment through to completion. In addition to cases of culture shock, many U.S. expatriates find that there are many factors, which can complicate the building process in foreign countries, especially in the lesser-developed countries. There can be any number of problems such as lack of fully functioning infrastructure, service industries and government agencies experiencing instability, civil unrest, shortages of adequate materials and trained craftsmen, difficulty in procuring and obtaining the proper materials, and short construction seasons (Jaselskis & Talukhaba, 1998). In addition, family problems and loss of community ties can often play a large role in expatriates’ lack of motivation to finish assignments abroad or unwillingness to take assignments overseas in general. A combination of difficulties and daily issues often appear a daunting task to undertake, let alone overcome, for any design or construction professional considering taking a position overseas (Borstorff, Feild, Giles, & Harris, 1997).

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study is to explore why American construction professionals choose to live and work overseas. In other words, what are the motivating factors that attribute not only to the willingness of U.S. employees to accept expatriate positions, but also the ability to see projects through to completion? The answers to the following general themes will go a long way in determining an employees’ willingness to accept assignments overseas:

  1. What initially motivated you to try overseas construction work?
  2. What motivates you to continue working overseas?
  3. What personality traits are essential to a successful overseas construction career?

Rational for the Study

International corporations invest a lot of money and resources into training and preparing employees that are assigned to manage projects around the world. In order to keep up with other multinational companies, U.S. corporations are going global, but are the respected managers prepared to follow? In today’s international marketplace, successful implementation of a global strategy depends upon getting the right people, with the right skills, in the right place, and at the right time (Brett & Stroh, 1995). As international corporate activities increase, the staffing of their operations involves more strategic concerns. However, foreign assignments have many differences, and dissatisfaction with host countries is a known cause of expatriate failure (Chen, Tzeng, & Tang, 2005). In fact, failure rates have been estimated to range from 25% to 40% and associated costs for each failure is estimated from $55,000 to $85,000 (Mendenhall & Oddou, 1985). Even though the statistics will fluctuate depending on the variables, corporations can ill afford to take the international assingment process lightly. Thus, a crucial question that faces many corporations will continue to be, “Who is willing to accept expatriate assignments and see them through to completion (Borstorff, Feild, Giles, & Harris,1997)?”

Martinko & Douglas (1999) investigated employees’ fitness for international assignments in relation to the overwhelming failure rates of U.S. corporations’ expatriate programs. With an estimated 80,000 U.S. citizens working abroad in 1999, thirty percent were calculated as mistakes (Tung, 1998). An expatriate mistake, or failure, is defined as: the expatriate returning early and never completing the intended duration of the assignment (Martinko & Douglas, 1999). In addition to simple willingness or motivation, success in a foreign work assignment is dependent upon specific skill set that, if not inherently possessed, must be developed through a rigorous training program.

Literature Review

This section of the study seeks to evaluate the relevant items of literature with a plan of discovering what motivates U.S. design and construction professionals to live and work on international projects and how companies assess qualifications for overseas assignments. Past research of factors effecting U.S. employees’ motivation to accept positions on projects in subsidiaries outside the country have largely focused on: (1) willingness to relocate internationally (Brett & Stroh, 1995; Borstorff et al., 1997) and (2) selection and training process (Harzig & Christensen, 2004; Gregersen & Black, 1990; Wright & Baker, 1996; Arthur & Bennett, 2006).

Studies that have specifically looked at the correlation between employee motivation and willingness to work on international projects have produced varied results at best. One definitive study that examined this issue was conducted by Brett & Stroh (1995), which included examination of over 405 managers and their spouses from twenty Fortune 500 multinational corporations. The results concluded that the success or failure of expatriate assignments depended largely upon the spouses’ support of and satisfaction with each assignment. In addition, a manager’s own attitudes toward moving or relocating domestically played a significant role in their motivation to accept international assignments. Lastly, the authors also concluded that there is a negative correlation between parents having children at home and their willingness to transfer overseas.

Another study that involved the factors associated with employee willingness to live and work overseas, entitled “Who’ll go?” was conducted by Borstorff et al. (1997). This particular article showed a strong connection between expatriate assignment success rates and the support practices taken by each corporation. The specific support services centered around, but were not limited to, family, repatriation, mentoring, compensation, and training programs. When these actions are perceived by the employee and their spouse, the motivation to accept assignments abroad is influenced in a positive manner. Similar to the study conducted by Brett & Stroh, the research showed that in addition to single employees, married couples without children at home are the most willing and motivated to pursue expatriate work. Finally, some employees’ motivation is a direct result of their commitment to furthering their professional career. More often than not, these same individuals view an expatriate opportunity as advancement potential.

In a similar study on employees willingness to relocate internationally, Dickmann, Doherty, Mills, & Brewster (2008) explore motivation factors, pointing out that it is important to understand how a wide variety of items are actually incorporated in the decision to work abroad. Corporations have the tendency to significantly miscalculate the importance of work/life balance, career and development considerations and overestimate the financial aspect, in addition to, family situations. The results of the study promote the use of context-sensitive, multiple perspectives, as well as a need to present a varied criterion of influential factors on the decision to relocate.

Furthermore, from a potential assignee’s perspective, experience overseas could potentially have a wide variety of positive outcomes including skill acquisition and long-term career advancement. However, it is important for the potential assignee to be properly informed and therefore warned of the almost certain difficulties (Bonache, 2005). In addition to the many identifiable positives and negatives that face expatriate assignees, a high degree of uncertainty confronts these individuals before they even accept the position. Some of the questions most often asked include:

  • Is it worth accepting the offer?
  • Will I be more or less satisfied than my fellow employees who stay in the states?
  • How will I feel when I return and/or how have past international assignees been accepted upon their return?
  • How personally satisfying will the experience be?
  • Will this opportunity truly benefit me long-term?

Bonache (2005) goes on to state that when it comes to international assignment satisfaction, there are three conclusions that can be formed from the study: 1) New work experiences and a great learning experiences are the most important part, 2) expatriates’ satisfaction with career prospects is higher than that of others and 3) expatriates are generally less satisfied with the company’s communication levels, which is consistent with isolation studies expatriates are confronted with while working abroad.

In regards to expatriate selection and training, Mendenhall and Oddou (1985) completed a study regarding the dimensions of successful, expatriate acculturation. Far too often, U.S. employees have proven an inability to adjust to host cultures’ social and business environments, causing detrimental effects toward corporations’ management performance, productivity in overseas operations, and client relations. By reviewing more than two decades of experimental studies and research related to expatriates adjustability, the authors established a set of necessary management attributes including 1) the Self-Oriented Dimension, 2) the Others-Oriented Dimension, 3) the Perceptual Dimension, and 4) the Cultural-Toughness Dimension.

The Self-Oriented Dimension requires a necessary capacity regarding stress reduction and technical competence which if met, will lead to increased possibility for successful assignments abroad. In addition, the Other-Oriented Dimension focuses on two subgroups or qualities, which include the ability for relationship development and a willingness to communicate. The capability of forming close relationships with host-nationals is vital, and is believed to have the similar effect on an expatriate that a mentor might have on a new employee (Tung, 1998). Next, the Perceptual Dimension revolves around the aptitude for understanding others, particularly foreigners, and why they behave the way they do. This ability helps in determining the assignee’s likelihood of being able to adjust to different cultures. Lastly, the Cultural-Toughness Dimension relates to the assimilation difficulties with certain cultures and people groups. With the ability to assess these dimensions beforehand, the research provides data supporting that encourages multinational corporations investing in a rigorous selection and training program in order for expatriate failure rates to drop (Mendenhall & Oddou, 1985).

Once again, history has proven that success rates of expatriate programs in U.S. corporations have been unimpressive at best, which has now caused many employees to lose faith and motivation in volunteering for international assignments (Borstorff et al. 1997). Similarly, Brett and Stroh (1995) concluded, “If large number of U.S. managers are unwilling to consider international assignments, or are unqualified to do so, corporations will have to look elsewhere for managerial talent to implement their global strategies”.

Research Design & Methodology

Wanting to obtain a deeper understanding of the motivational factors behind design and construction professionals’ willingness to relocate to work on international projects, this study used a quantitative research methodology. Creswell (1994) defines quantitative research as “any inquiry into a social or human problem, based on testing a hypothesis or a theory composed of variables, measured with numbers, and analyzed with statistical procedures, in order to determine whether the hypothesis or the theory holds true”. Quantitative data is, therefore, not abstract, but tends to be hard and reliable. In other words, quantitative studies and research produces measurements that are tangible, countable, physical features of the world (Bouma & Atkinson, 1995).

In order to develop the survey instrument (see Appendix A), the authors interviewed personnel working for an international construction firm with over 85 years of combined experience in building projects in developing countries. The authors used a structured approach, in which open-ended and closed-ended questions were asked to each interviewee using the same order and wording. The broad, open-ended questions allowed the respondents to fully explain their answers, which nurtured the deepest and richest results. The following questions were used in the interviews that helped the authors develop the survey instrument:

  1. How long have you been working in international construction?
  2. What initially motivated you to try overseas work?
  3. In what foreign countries have you worked?
  4. What are your long-term career goals, as far as international work is concerned?
  5. What motivates you to continue working internationally?
  6. What is your current family situation?
  7. What sort of professional challenges have you encountered while working internationally that might deter someone from pursuing that line of work?
  8. What sort of personal challenges have you encountered while working internationally that might deter someone from pursuing that line of work?
  9. What sort of cultural challenges have you encountered while working internationally that might deter someone from pursuing that line of work?
  10. What are the necessary character/personality attributes a professional should possess or obtain in order to succeed on international assignments?

The goal of the survey was to limit confounding variables that may cover up or mask the information or data that was desired. This noise was minimized by using the web-based survey program Zoomerang (Zoomerang, 2009). While the population of the study includes every U.S. construction firm that has worked on international construction projects, the sample size for the survey was limited to employees of nine international firms headquartered in the following cities:

  • Birmingham, AL
  • Montgomery, AL
  • San Francisco, CA
  • Irving, TX
  • Omaha, NE
  • Framingham, MA
  • Houston, TX

Qualitative Results from Earlier Study & Conclusions

Kramer and Dillard (2009) used a qualitative research methodology in their study that looked at a very small aspect of international construction, namely Americans working overseas on U.S. embassy projects. Twenty individuals participated in multiple structured interviews that were conducted with construction professionals who currently are, or have previously been, working abroad on US embassy projects. From the results of their exploratory research, it appears that common threads run through construction professionals working overseas on U.S. embassy projects. Motivators included money, adventure, challenge, and travel (Exhibit 1).

Motivations for choosing initial overseas work assignment (Kramer & Dillard, 2009)

Exhibit 1: Motivations for choosing initial overseas work assignment (Kramer & Dillard, 2009).

It also seems that many individuals were greatly influenced by family issues and changes in family status. Furthermore, individuals tend to be motivated by adventure and financial reasons, and tend to be drawn away from international construction by issues related to family. Personality traits from the study are shown in Exhibit 2.

Personality traits for a successful overseas work assignment (Kramer & Dillard, 2009)

Exhibit 2: Personality traits for a successful overseas work assignment (Kramer & Dillard, 2009).

Interestingly, Kramer and Dillard (2009) found in their study that technical skills were rarely mentioned as important to success in the field of international construction. The consensus of those interviewed was that it is more important to possess the aforementioned personality traits and motivations than any identified technical specialty. Such an implication could be of value to potential employers in the international construction industry. If firms are not already doing so, they might consider profiling personalities as part of the hiring process.

The quantitative results from the survey of this current research study will be compiled, analyzed and reported at the 2009 PMI EMEA Congress, Amsterdam. The results could be an interesting confirmation of research described in the literature review and the earlier study by Kramer and Dillard. However, the results could be a stark contrast to the assumptions and anecdotal evidence that surrounds the motivations and personality traits of Americans working overseas and provide empirical evidence to contradict previous literature on the subject. The authors look forward to presenting their analysis and conclusions at the 2009 PMI Global Congress in Amsterdam.

Arthur, W. J., & Bennett, W. J. (2006, December 6). The International Assignee: The Relative Importance of Factors Perceived to Contribute to Success. Personell Psychology, 99-114.

Bonache, J. (2005). Job Satisfaction Among Expatriate, Repatriates and Domestic Employees. Personnel Review, 110-124.

Borstorff, P., Feild, H., Giles, W., & Harris, S. (1997). Who’ll Go? A Review of Factors Associated with Employee Willingness to Work Overseas. Human Resource Planning, 29-40.

Bouma, Gary D. & G.B.J. Atkinson. 1995. A Handbook of Social Science Research: A Comprehensive Practical Guide for Students, 2nd edition. Oxford University Press. New York.

Brett, J. M., & Stroh, L. K. (1995). Willingness to Relocate Internationall. Human Resource Management, 405-424.

Chen, M.-F., Tzeng, G.-H., & Tang, T.-I. (2005). Fuzzy MCDM Approach for Evaluation of Expatriate Assignments. International Journal of Information Technology & Decision Making, 277-296.

Dickmann, M., Doherty, N., Mills, T., & Brewster, C. (2008). Why do they go? Individual and corporate perspectives on the factors influencing the decision to accept an international assignment . The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 731-751.

Gregersen, H., & Black, S. (1990). A Multifaceted Approach to Expatriate Retention in International Assignments. Group & Organizational Studies, 461-485.

Harzig, A.-W., & Christensen, C. (2004). Expatriate Failure: time to abandon the concept? Career Development International, 616-626

Jaselskis, E., & Talukhaba, A. (1998). Bidding Considerations in developing countries. Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, 185-193.

Kovach, K. A. (2001). What Motivates Employees? Workers and Supervisors Give Different Answers. Business Horizons, 58-65.

Kramer, S.W., & Dillard, C. (2009). Why Do American Construction Professionals Choose to Work Abroad on U.S. Embassy Projects? 2009 International Proceedings of the Associated Schools of Construction, Gainesville, FL, April 1 – 4, 2009.

Martinko, M. J., & Douglas, R. (1999). Culture and Expatriate Failure: An Attributional Explication. The International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 265-293.

Mendenhall, M., & Oddou, G. (1985). The Dimensions of Expatriate Acculturation: A Review. Academy of Management Review, 39-47

Mitchell, T. R. (1982). Motivation: New Directions for Theory, Research, and Practice. Academy of Management Review, 80-88.

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Ramlall, S. (2004). A Review of Employee Motivation Theories and their Implications for Employee. Journal of American Academy of Business, 52-63.

Tung, R. (1998). American Expatriates Abroad: From Neophytes to Cosmopolitans. Journal of World Business, 125-144.

Wiley, C. (1997). What motivates employees according to over 40 years of motivation surveys. International Journal of Manpower, 263-280.

Wright, P., Geroy, G., & Baker, N. (1996). Managing Expatriates: a systems approach. Management Decision, 32-42.

Zoomerang (2009). On-line surveys. Retrieved on April 8, 2009 from

Appendix A
International Construction Zoomerang Survey

1) Gender?

2) Age?

3) Family structure:

4) Do you feel your personality leans more towards being an extrovert (gregarious, assertive, and generally seek out excitement) or an introvert (in contrast, are more reserved, less outgoing, and a person who processes information internally or inwardly, by thinking about it and mulling it over….)?

5) What is your highest level of education obtained?

6) How many years have you been working abroad on international projects?

7) From the total answered in question #6, how many years have you worked abroad on international construction projects?

8) From the total answered in question #6, how many years have you worked in support services for international construction projects (i.e. home office, logistics, etc.)?

9) What is your current position or job title?

10) What MOTIVATED you to take an overseas assignment?

11) If answered “OTHER” from question #10, please specify below:

12) From the options in question #10, which factor motivates you the MOST to continue working overseas?

13) Were you required to participate in a training program (i.e. customized intercultural and language training) before your overseas assignment?

14) Were you required to learn the language in the host country?

15) Was the lack of language proficiency a hindrance to the success of your assignment?

16) Did you have previous overseas experience before accepting your FIRST international assignment? (I.e. study abroad/education, military family, peace corps, etc)

17) Please list the countries where you have had overseas, on-site, job experience:

18) Do you intend to accept another international position after your current one?

19) Please place a numerical rating by each of the following items for its importance in overseas assignment failure:

20) If answered “OTHER” from question # 19, please specify below:

21) Is there a country in which you would be unwilling to accept an international assignment?

22) Did/Do you feel properly supported by your employer while you were/are working on overseas assignments?

23) What kinds of cultural, personal, or family conditions have you encountered working abroad which might encourage someone to pursue an international assignment for the first time?

24) What kinds of cultural, personal, or family conditions have you encountered working abroad which might deter a person from pursuing an international assignment?

25) Select the character/personality attributes a professional should possess to succeed on international assignments.

26) If answered “OTHER” on question # 25, please specify below.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2009, Kramer & Sommer
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Amsterdam, Netherlands



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