Originally published by Harvard Business Review, February 2014
One Thursday in mid-January I had been holed up for six hours in a dark conference room with 12 managers participating in my executive education program. It was a group-coaching day and each executive had 30 minutes to describe in detail a cross-cultural challenge she was experiencing at work and to get feedback and suggestions from the others at the table.
It was Willem’s turn, one of the Dutch participants, who recounted an uncomfortable snafu when working with Asian clients. “How can I fix this relationship?” Willem asked his group of international peers, also attending the same course.
Maarten, the other Dutch participant who knew Willem well, jumped in with his perspective. “You are inflexible and can be socially ill-at-ease. That makes it difficult for you to communicate with your team,” he asserted. As Willem listened, I could see his ears turning red (with embarrassment or anger? I wasn’t sure), but that didn’t seem to bother Maarten, who calmly continued to assess Willem’s weaknesses in front of the entire group. Meanwhile, the other participants—all Americans, British and Asians—awkwardly stared at their feet.
That evening, we had a group dinner at a cozy restaurant. Entering a little after the others, I was startled to see Willem and Maarten sitting together, eating peanuts, drinking champagne, and laughing like old friends. They waved me over, and it seemed appropriate to comment, “I’m glad to see you together. I was afraid you might not be speaking to each other after the feedback session this afternoon.”
Willem, with a look of surprise, reflected, “Of course, I didn’t enjoy hearing those things about myself. It doesn’t feel good to hear what I have done poorly. But I so much appreciated that Maarten would be transparent enough to give me that feedback honestly. Feedback like that is a gift. Thanks for that, Maarten” he added with an appreciative smile.
I thought to myself, “This Dutch culture is . . . well . . . different from my own.”
Both arrogance and dishonesty do exist, of course. There are even times when people give offense deliberately in pursuit of political objectives or in response to personal emotional problems. But in some cases, painful incidents are the result of cross-cultural misunderstandings. Managers in different parts of the world are conditioned to give feedback in drastically different ways. The Chinese manager learns never to criticize a colleague openly or in front of others, while the Dutch manager learns always to be honest and to give the message straight. Americans are trained to wrap positive messages around negative ones, while the French are trained to criticize passionately and provide positive feedback sparingly.
One way to begin gauging how a culture handles negative feedback is by listening to the types of words people use. More direct cultures tend to use what linguists call upgraders, words preceding or following negative feedback that make it feel stronger, such as absolutely, totally, or strongly: “This is absolutely inappropriate,” or “This is totally unprofessional.”
By contrast, more indirect cultures use more downgraders, words that soften the criticism, such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe, and slightly. Another type of downgrader is a deliberate understatement, such as “We are not quite there yet” when you really mean “This is nowhere close to complete.” The British, who are less direct than Americans and a lot less direct than the Dutch are masters at it.
The “Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide” has been anonymously circulating in various versions on the Internet provides an illustration.
|What the British say
|What the British mean
|What the Dutch understand
|With all due respect…
|I think you are wrong.
|He is listening to me.
|Perhaps you would think about… I would suggest…
|This is an order. Do it or be prepared to justify yourself.
|Think about this idea and do it if you like.
|Oh, by the way…
|The following criticism is the purpose of this discussion is…
|This is not very important.
|I was a bit disappointed that…
|I am very upset and angry that…
|It doesn’t really matter.
|I don’t like it.
|They are impressed.
|Could you consider some other options?
|Your idea is not a good one.
|They have not yet decided.
|Please think about that some more.
|It’s a bad idea. Don’t do it.
|It’s a good idea. Keep developing it.
|I’m sure it’s my fault.
|It’s not my fault.
|It was their fault.
That is an original point of view.
|Your idea is stupid.
|They like my ideas!
To Marcus Klopfer, a German client, this guide was no laughing matter. Klopfer outlined how a misunderstanding with his British boss almost cost him his job:
In Germany, we typically use strong words when complaining or criticizing in order to make sure the message registers clearly and honestly. Of course, we assume others will do the same. My British boss during a one-on-one “suggested that I think about” doing something differently. So I took his suggestion: I thought about it, and decided not to do it. Little did I know that his phrase was supposed to be interpreted as “change your behavior right away or else.” And I can tell you I was pretty surprised when my boss called me into his office to chew me out for insubordination!
I learned to ignore all of the soft words surrounding the message when listening to my British teammates. Of course, the other lesson was to consider how my British staff might interpret my messages, which I had been delivering as “purely” as possible with no softeners whatsoever. I realize now that when I give feedback in my German way, I may actually use words that make the message sound as strong as possible without thinking much about it. I’ve been surrounded by this “pure” negative feedback since I was a child.
All this can be interesting, surprising, and sometimes downright painful, when you are leading a global team. You might sit down for a morning of annual performance reviews and as you Skype with your employees in different cultures, your words are magnified or minimized significantly based on your listener’s cultural context
So you have to be aware. You need to work to understand how your own way of giving feedback is viewed in other cultures. You can begin to recognize when you are using upgraders and downgraders, and to notice when your international colleagues are using them. Then you can experiment a little to adjust your words, to suit the context.
As Klopfer says:
Now that I better understand these cultural tendencies, I make a concerted effort to soften the message when working with cultures less direct than my own. I start by sprinkling the ground with a few light positive comments and words of appreciation. Then I ease into the feedback with “a few small suggestions.” As I’m giving the feed- back, I add words like “minor” or “possibly.” Then I wrap up by stating that “This is just my opinion, for whatever it is worth,” and “You can take it or leave it.”
The elaborate dance is quite humorous from a German’s point of view. We’d be much more comfortable just stating Das war absolut unverschämt (“that was absolutely shameless”). But it certainly gets my desired results!
What about you? Where do you think your own culture falls in this regard? Despite what your cultural normative pattern might be, of course we all have individual preferences. If I need to tell you your work is total crap, how would you like me to deliver the message?