• Monday, March 04, 2024
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Giving Feedback across cultures


Although many of us don’t like to do it, we know that critiquing others’ work – ideally in a constructive, polite, empowering manner – is an essential part of our jobs. But does critical feedback work similarly across cultures? Do people in Shanghai provide critical feedback in the same way as people in Stuttgart, Strasbourg, and Stockholm?

Nicht, non and nej.

Instead, they confront situations where they do have to adjust their feedback style, and sometimes that’s easier said than done. Take the case of Jens, a German executive who was sent by the German corporate headquarters of his company to improve efficiency at the company’s manufacturing plant in Shanghai. Despite being sent to improve efficiency at the plant, all his efforts seemed to be producing the exact opposite result. Jens’s Chinese employees seemed to be losing efficiency and effectiveness, and he could not figure out what was going wrong. He was using everything he knew that worked in Germany – especially in terms of performance feedback. In fact, he made doubly sure to be just as demanding and exacting with his Chinese employees as he would have been in Germany. If his Chinese employees failed to produce what he was looking for, Jens would be ‘’on it,’’ providing immediate critique to get the process moving back in the right direction. But the problem was, this didn’t work. In fact, it failed miserably.

It turns out that what worked in Germany in terms of tough, critical, to-the-point negative feedback was actually demotivating to Jens’s new Chinese employees, who were used to a far gentler feedback style. In Germany, you don’t single out specific accomplishments or offer praise unless the accomplishment is truly extraordinary. From a German point of view, these positive work behaviors are normal, rather than extraordinary. Employees are expected to do a particular job, and when they do that job, they do not need to be recognized. In China – at least at this particular plant – the culture was quite different. Employees expected more positive reinforcement than pure critique. These positive comments motivated them to increase productivity and put forth that extra, discretionary effort.

Clearly, feedback can sound very different across cultures. What can you do to ensure your style fits the new setting?

TIP 1: LEARN THE NEW CULTURAL RULES. This is an obvious one, but many managers I speak with tell me how they had just assumed their style was universal, and that lack of awareness is what initially got them into trouble. Learning the ‘’cultural code’’ by reading up on the culture and observing it in action is the very first step toward developing cultural fluency.

TIP 2: FIND A CULTURAL MENTOR. In Jens’s case, he actually had a Chinese-born cultural mentor to help guide him out of this quagmire. Although this particular consultant was not German-born, he was globally savvy, having worked in high-level positions in multinational companies for many years. A mentor who appreciates your position as well as the expectations of the new culture can help you craft a new style that fits where you are and that feels authentic to you.

TIP 3: CUSTOMIZE YOUR BEHAVIOR. Don’t assume you have to ‘’go native’’ to be successful. In Jens’s case, he was able to adjust his feedback style to be somewhat less frank than his German approach, and it worked. You often can create a blend or a hybrid that feels comfortable (enough) for you that is effective in the new setting.

(Andy Molinsky is an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process.”)