How can governments manage civil servants to enhance public service motivation (PSM)? Despite the centrality of PSM in public administration research, the effects of management practices on PSM remain understudied. We address this gap through a conjoint experiment with 7,300 public servants in five countries in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Our experiment assesses two practices: merit‐based competitions for recruitment versus discretionary appointments; and permanent tenure versus temporary job contracts. We find that merit competitions are associated with greater PSM by respondents in four countries, yet have no significant effect in a fifth. Permanent contracts are associated with greater PSM (two countries), lower PSM (one country) and have no significant effect (two countries). The effects of personnel management practices thus appear to vary across contexts. A common practice in public administration research—generalizations about the effects of management practices from single‐country studies or cross‐country averages—requires rethinking.