Cultural Feedback

Not until I started working for a global company and spending time in other countries did I realize how different me and my colleagues were when giving critical feedback. Communicating with colleagues from 25 countries can range from politically correct to outright shocking. Either way, it is never a dull moment. This article shed’s light on some of the cultural differences when giving feedback.

While my colleagues mean no harm and the intention of their message may be the same, the wrapping of the message changes. And, this wrapping has many different colors and textures. For example, my Dutch and German colleagues are more comfortable shooting straight. Whereas, my Asian colleagues prefer relationship orientated communication that preserves the reputation of their audience, even if that means the message is less clear.

Being an American, we are often stereotyped around the world for our directness. That is quite interesting because when it involves giving feedback, we typically opt for the sandwich approach: start with something positive, followed by the suggested improvement, then close with something else positive to soften the real feedback. If you used this same approach with my Dutch colleagues, they would do away with the carbs and give the meat alone. My Asian colleagues, on the other hand, would choose the vegetarian option.

It is fair to say that most of my European colleagues’ value directness. They view the American way of giving feedback as confusing and sometimes inauthentic and see no point in sugar-coating the conversation.

Based on the following scenario, this is an example of how different cultures would offer feedback: A colleague has asked you to review his/her report and provide your feedback. In your opinion, the management summary is excellent. However, the second chapter containing the analysis lacks structure and body. Keeping in mind that culture is multi-faceted, these examples are generalizations of cultural tendencies and quirks.

  •  A Dutch person will be direct, as honesty and transparency are key. The feedback would sound something like this: The analysis completely lacks structure and body.
  •  A German person will try to make a connection to a body of expertise or knowledge. The feedback would sound something like this: What are your findings from the analysis? Which approach did you use? It does not come across due to a lack of structure.
  •  An English person will wrap the feedback in a jacket of politeness, topped with a collar of indirectness. It would sound something like this: I would consider taking a look at the structure of the analysis. But that is just my opinion.
  •  An American person will focus more on the positive. The real feedback will be more of what is not said. Hence, it would sound something like: You did a particularly great job with the management summary.
  •  A French person tends to look for the rules or the standard the other person has deviated from, instead of addressing the behavior directly. The feedback would sound something like this: According to book X, the structure of analysis should be Y.
  •  An Asian (Chinese) person wants to help the receiver save face and may blur the message or avoid communicating feedback to the person altogether. Instead, they may give it to another colleague who they know will pass it on to the person in question, or they might address the issue of structure to the whole team. The feedback would sound something like this: As a team, we might benefit from learning the best way to structure an analysis report.

In our increasingly global world, most of us will come face-to-face with colleagues of different cultural backgrounds. Providing feedback goes beyond understanding another culture’s language and choice words. It has more to do with how directly the feedback is delivered. Remember, there is an art to giving feedback, which starts with understanding why you are giving it in the first place. Feedback is grounded in helping someone develop and improve, not to place blame.

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