Feedback at work: a question of culture?
Everyone agrees that feedback can be a valuable management tool, used to forge a relationship based on trust and confidence, to help staff develop (including the manager himself in many cases!) and to more easily reach their professional goals… But how many managers really take account of the cultural aspects of providing feedback?
The cultural aspects of feedback
It’s important to remember that the way we learn to give and receive feedback is influenced by our cultural environment and our education, in which the education system naturally has a key role to play. It is therefore not surprising to find that a French manager will be more inclined to point out areas for improvement, (the famous “could do better!”) than to practice the subtle art of positive encouragement at which the Americans are highly accomplished.
The way feedback is given is often a source of embarrassment and resentment in multicultural teams, because each person tends to apply their own personal criteria to feedback, or several cultural stereotypes which sometimes serve as “shortcuts” in the communication field. For example, everyone finds it easier to understand the rather frank and direct communication style of the Americans, the Dutch or the Australians, than the more implicit style of the Japanese, Chinese, Indians or Saudi Arabians. In these cultures, the context in which the message is communicated, the status of the person doing the talking and that of the “receiver” carry as much meaning as the words themselves. It is therefore advisable to pay attention to the many underlying cultural messages.
Based on these assumptions, you should avoid the trap of applying the same criteria to feedback situations, because there are some notable exceptions, especially concerning negative feedback.
Some cultures known for being particularly explicit in communication terms are much less so when it comes to expressing their discontent. Consequently, the Americans prefer to “dress up” their negative feedback with one or several positive comments using the famous “sandwich technique”: positive feedback to put the other person at ease, negative feedback to enable him to improve and a positive conclusion to send him away motivated again. For their part, the British prefer to use the richness of the English language to practice understatement and the sometimes give the impression minimising problems. A client who is “a bit disappointed” is not only slightly disappointed but probably seriously unhappy about the way he has been treated. And the expression “perhaps you would think….” uttered by your manager is not a friendly suggestion but a firm instruction to change your methods.
Curiously, some Latin cultures known for their liking of circumlocution and allusions (French, Italians and Spanish) are more at ease with direct negative feedback, to which they do not always consider it appropriate to add positive aspects. This leaves no one in any doubt about their intentions. This is also the case with the Russians.
Feedback in multicultural teams
So, what’s the best way to manage feedback in multicultural teams?
- Firstly, by openly sharing each person’s viewpoints and cultural habits, before feedback situations become a problem. This is also preferential in any relationship-based situation which may have an impact on the climate within a heterogeneous team: communication styles, respect for rules, the use of e-mails, communication between different levels within the hierarchy, etc.
- By taking account of each person’s cultural differences and expectations, you can respect peoples’ sensitivities and avoid offending those you’re dealing with, without needing to drastically change your style. If you know that the Asians’ respect for hierarchy does not allow them to express criticism in front of their superiors or to affirm themselves in the presence of older colleagues, you will avoid asking them for comments or criticising them for not being sufficiently proactive during large meetings involving many people.
- You should also avoid excessively adapting to the style of the people you are speaking to. Not only would this require a great deal of effort on your part, but you will also risk being seen as inconsistent if you have several cultures in your team: “the boss is forthright and direct with Jan but smooth and diplomatic with Chan, and he’s always got positive comments for Jack despite the fact that he makes as many mistakes as the others…”.
- Finally, provide feedback on a constant, regular basis, for both negative and positive feedback, because your ability to hand out fair criticism as well as sincere compliments will demonstrate your openness as a manager and your mentoring capacity.
- Also seek feedback from your peers and your staff, to show that you are also happy to receive criticism and suggestions.
The basic rules of feedback also apply in multicultural environments:
- Always give precise and factual feedback, combined with examples based on observable behaviour (and not on the personal qualities which you believe to be the cause). Pointing out the consequences of the behaviour in question makes it possible to place the facts in context and provides the necessary perspective.
- Only give sincere feedback with positive intentions: help the person to improve and to widen his viewpoint, adding positive information with the aim of encouraging him and motivating him rather than sugar-coating things by trying to understand the person’s viewpoint.
- Only give feedback on an individual, face-to-face basis, and using the first person singular: the use of “you” is a little accusatory, while the use of “one” or “we” displays a lack of managerial courage…
- Involve the person you are speaking to in efforts to find solutions and in the implementation of the action plan, which should imperatively include monitoring and follow-up work with both parties.
Whether you are in a multicultural management situation or not, always take the time to listen to your staff, remaining attentive to low-level signals such as body language, silences, and the choice of words, etc. When in doubt, ask open questions and provide the necessary time and place for the person to express themselves. You will learn a great deal and bolster your relationships, not to mention your reputation as a good manager.
Angela Lequenne, certified coach and experienced trainer