January 21, 2020

Feedback and culture

Intercultural Communication

Giving feedback is independent of implicit or explicit communication. It is often a question of culture and education. So how do you go about it?

Feedback and culture

Feedback at work: a matter of culture?

Everyone agrees that a good practice of giving feedbacks can be a great intercultural management tool, to be used to nurture the relationship of trust, to grow employees (and often the manager himself!), to achieve more on their professional goals easily and quickly… But how many managers really take the cultural dimension into account in the practice of feedback?

The cultural dimension of feedback

It should be remembered that the way we learn to give and receive feedback is influenced by our cultural environment and our education, in which the school system plays a determining role. It is therefore not surprising to note that a French manager will be more inclined to point the finger at areas for improvement (the famous “can do better!”) than to practice the subtle art of positive encouragement, of which the Americans are masters. 

The practice of feedback is often a source of embarrassment and misunderstanding in multicultural teams, because everyone tends to apply their personal criteria to feedback, or even some cultural stereotypes that sometimes serve as shortcuts in the field of communication. For example, everyone expects to decode more easily, the rather frank and direct communication of Americans, Dutch or Australians, than that much more implicit of the Japanese, Chinese, Indians or Saudis. In these cultures, the context in which the message is inscribed, the status of the speaker and that of the recipient, convey as much meaning as the words. It is therefore recommended to pay attention to the many cultural overtones.  

From there, we should avoid being trapped by the temptation to extend these same criteria to feedback situations, because there are notable exceptions when it comes to negative feedback. 

Indeed, some cultures known to be explicit in terms of communication are much less so when it comes to expressing their discontent. Thus, Americans prefer instead to wrap their negative feedbacks in one or more positive comments, according to the famous “sandwich technique”: positive feedback to put the interlocutor in confidence, negative feedback to allow him to improve, a conclusion positive so that he leaves motivated. The British, on the other hand, takes advantage of the richness of the English language to make understatement and sometimes appear to be downplaying the problems. An "a bit disappointed" customer is not a little disappointed, but rather downright unhappy with the way he was treated. And the expression "perhaps you would think…. "in the mouth of your manager is less a friendly suggestion, than a firm invitation to change methods. 

Curiously, some Latin cultures known for their taste for periphrasis and implication (French, Italians, Spaniards) are more comfortable with direct negative feedback, to which they do not always consider it appropriate to add positive elements. Question not to leave any doubt about their intentions. This is also the case with the Russians.  

The practice of feedback in multicultural teams 

So, how do you manage feedback well in multicultural teams? 

  • First, by openly sharing each other's views and cultural habits, before feedback situations become problematic. This is also desirable for all relationship situations that can impact the climate of a heterogeneous team: communication styles, respect for rules, use of e-mails, communication between hierarchical levels, etc. 
  • By taking into account cultural differences and everyone's expectations, you can, without having to revolutionize your style, respect sensitivities and avoid offending your interlocutors. If you know that respect for the hierarchy of Asians does not allow them to express criticism in front of their supervisor, nor to put themselves forward in the presence of older colleagues, you will avoid soliciting their comments (or blaming them for not being not be proactive) in large group meetings. 
  • Also, avoid trying to adapt at all costs to the style of your interlocutor. Not only would that require a considerable effort from you, but you would risk making yourself a reputation as a weather vane if you have multiple cultures in your team: “The chef is frank and direct with Jan, but very smooth and diplomatic with Chan, while he always has positive comments for Jack, who nevertheless makes as many mistakes as the others… ”. 
  • Finally, be diligent in the practice of feedback, negative and positive, because knowing how to distribute fair criticism, as well as sincere compliments, will show your openness as a manager and your qualities as a mentor. 
  • Also solicit feedback from your peers and collaborators, to show that you are also available to receive criticism and suggestions. 

For the rest, the basic rules of feedback also apply in a multicultural environment:  

  • always give precise and factual feedback, accompanied by examples based on observable behaviours (and not on the personal qualities that you think are the reason). Indication of the consequences of the behaviour in question also helps to better situate the facts in their context and to take a step back 
  • give only sincere feedback and with positive intentions: help the person to improve and broaden their points of view, bring the positive elements in order to encourage and motivate, rather than, to eat the pill, wanting to understand the point of view of his interlocutor 
  • give feedback only face-to-face, individually, and by speaking in the first person singular: the use of "you / you" is a bit accusatory, the use of "we" or "we" does not sweat managerial courage ... 
  • involve their interlocutor in the search for solutions and in the implementation of the action plan, which must imperatively provide for follow-up between the two parties. 

Whether you are in a multicultural management situation or not, always listen to your interlocutor, remaining sensitive to weak signals such as body attitude, silences, the choice of language. When in doubt, ask open-ended questions and allow time and space for expression. You will learn a lot of things and you will strengthen the relationship, as well as your reputation as a good manager. 

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