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How to give feedback across cultures

Roi Ben-Yehuda

CEO and Founder, NextArrow

LifeLabs Learning specializes in manager and employee training for over 700 amazing companies. As we’ve grown, our reach has expanded globally - just last quarter, we delivered workshops in India, Japan, China, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Spain, Germany, Mexico, and Singapore.

While many leadership and communication tools are universal, we’ve also had to tailor our content to a culturally diverse audience. This has proven to be especially true when it comes to delivering feedback.  

When we worked with predominantly American-headquartered companies, we taught participants the importance of delivering clear and direct messages: “say what you mean and mean what you say.” Although Americans have a reputation for being direct, when it comes to giving feedback, most managers in the U.S. (and even in NYC!) sugarcoat and blur their central message for fear of damaging their reputation, relationships, or team morale. The result is that the feedback is confusing and not actionable. For example:

Instead of saying:

"Hey, I want you to know that you are a really great contributor to our team meetings. I was a bit disappointed when you didn’t look engaged today, but like I said, our team meetings are better off because you are in them."

We teach people to give data- and impact-driven feedback:

"Hey, I noticed you checked your phone and texted a few times in our last meeting. I bring this up because it goes against our team norms and encourages others to do the same. The impact was that we didn’t get to hear everyone’s ideas. What are your thoughts on this?"    

Yet as we ventured into other cultures, we noticed that our straightforward approach didn’t always resonate. Some cultures (e.g., South and East Asian countries) valued more indirect communication as a way of protecting people’s identity in public settings. 

Direct Style Indirect Style
"I was upset." "I was a bit surprised." 
"I don’t like this idea." "It’s an interesting idea." 
"This is nowhere close to done." "We’re almost there." 
"I don’t know how to do that." "I’ll try my best."

Matt Williams, a Leadership Facilitator at LifeLabs, delivered several Feedback Skills workshops in India and witnessed this cultural tendency first-hand:

Many of my Indian participants repeatedly shared how difficult it was to deliver critical feedback because maintaining good, honorable relationships among their colleagues was paramount to a healthy and comfortable work environment. 

Megan Wheeler, Director of Recruiting at LifeLabs Learning adds: 

When working in Tokyo, participants shared that they conceptually understood the importance of direct feedback but didn’t know where to begin with implementing a new cultural framework in the office when the framework for feedback outside of the office was so different culturally.

This tension opened up a bigger question for us: how do people within and across multi-cultural teams give each other effective feedback? It doesn’t take much imagination to see how managers trained in giving direct feedback would have a hard time communicating with individuals that value indirect communication (or the other way around). 

Four tips on how to give feedback across cultures

When there's a chance that styles of feedback will clash, there are a number of ways you can prepare.

1. Do your homework

This tip may seem commonsensical, yet too many of us assume our way of doing things is universal, correct, and obvious. How direct is the communication in this cultural setting? How tight are the norms? How important is saving face? A good place to start is with some of our favorite books: The Culture Map by Eryn Meyers, CQ: Developing Cultural Intelligence at Work by P. Christopher Earley, Soo Ang, and Joo-Seng Tan, and Leading with Cultural Intelligence by David Livermore.   

2. Get a norms translator

Find a guide who knows the culture well. Often, these are insiders from within the organization that can anticipate the challenges and needs of the team. Having contact with such a person will potentially also reduce stereotypical thinking (e.g., all people from this culture think X). This is especially useful if you are new to working with a team. 

Not sure how to approach a potential guide? Here are some questions to ask: 

  • I want to make sure I’m being respectful of cultural and team norms. Would you be open to answering some questions for me about the team? How do people tend to do X here? 
  • What are some differences you’ve noticed between cultural norms here and in X?
  • What mistakes do people make when they are new to the culture or team?
  • Would you be willing to give me feedback on X, so I can keep learning?

3. Upgrade and downgrade

People from indirect cultures tend to use qualifying words to soften the tone of negative feedback. Sociolinguists call these “downgraders.” They include words like “maybe,” “a little,”  and “slightly.” On the other hand, people from direct communication cultures would often use “upgraders” when giving feedback. These include words like “totally,” “absolutely,” and “always.” 

Paying attention to upgraders and downgraders allows you to not only pick up on people’s communication style (direct vs indirect), but also to adapt your feedback to fit the situation. For example, when giving feedback in a more indirect culture, add downgraders (“perhaps,” “I wonder if,” “could we try”). On the other hand, in more direct settings, give precise feedback (think: “what would a camera capture?”).

4. Make the implicit explicit

No matter how many books you read or talks you watch on different cultures, you can never fully anticipate the norms and expectations of a particular group or individual. The best way to handle the gap between your expectations and theirs is to make the implicit explicit and talk about communication norms and preferences. For example, you might ask: 

  • I want to make sure we work well together and don’t miscommunicate. Would you share how you most like to give and receive feedback?
  • If we have some tough feedback for one another and want to share it so we can learn and improve, how do you prefer we do that?
  • What are some things that are important to you when it comes to communication and collaboration?
  • Just in case there are any differences in our norms, is there anything you think I should know about your work style, expectations, or preferences?

Giving feedback is the sine qua non (non-negotiables) of high-performing teams and organizations. Yet in an ever-increasing multicultural work environment, our ability to learn, adapt, and improve one another’s performance is often compromised. To address this challenge, we need to increase our cultural intelligence, adapt our style to different realities, and align around communication preferences.

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