The Pitfalls of Giving Feedback Across Cultures

In this class: vocabulary regarding feedback, communication, cultural awareness.

Vocabulary list:

– pitfall: problema que costuma ocorrer em alguma situação (learn more: https://businessfluency.com.br/significado-de-pitfall/)
– harness: explorar, aproveitar
– backfire: o tiro sair pela culatra
– trigger: desencadear, acionar
– self-esteem: autoestima
– forthright: direto, incisivo 
– recap: recapitular
– praise: elogiar
– lack: faltar 
– shy away from something: evitar algo 

Now, read the article:

Original source: INSEAD Knowledge | Author: Erin Meyer

A direct approach that’s welcomed at home can be easily misinterpreted as aggressive elsewhere.

In some ways, feedback is a little like networking. We all know it’s good and necessary, but most people feel somewhat awkward about it. Indeed, as the workplace becomes increasingly diverse, some care is needed, as norms and expectations can vary wildly.

Overall, most employees recognise the benefits of frank and honest feedback. For instance, in a 2019 survey by Zenger Folkman, 94 percent of 2,700 respondents said they believed feedback allowed them to improve when done right.

Problems can arise when feedback collides with a ubiquitous trend in business: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Bolstered by the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, DEI is among the top priorities of organisations today. At first glance, DEI does seem compatible with a culture of honest feedback. When properly harnessed, diverse voices can give firms an edge in an ever more complex world.

The challenge is that diversity often makes sharing feedback more complicated. Feedback delivered poorly – in the eyes of the recipient – can backfire. It can promote bad feelings and defensiveness, not to mention rupture relationships. For people to receive criticism well, they must first feel safe with the person providing it. 

Feedback triggers alarm bells in the brain

I ran an experiment with more than 3,000 executives who were my students at INSEAD. Presented with a hypothetical situation, 90 percent of them claimed that they would immediately give clear feedback to a colleague who had made mistakes during a sales presentation.

This result was consistent across industries, genders, cultural backgrounds and job levels. Surprised, I began asking a follow-up question: “What about your teammates? Would they provide the feedback?” As you can guess, most participants admitted that their colleagues would be unlikely to do so.

“Isn’t it interesting that only those rare people who would provide the feedback participate in my sessions?” I teased. While most managers claim they’d give the feedback, in real life they don’t.

The issue is that giving feedback triggers a conflict in people’s brains between the frontal cortex and the amygdala. The cortex, the most logical part of the brain, loves candid feedback. But the brain’s most primitive part, the amygdala, really doesn’t.

The challenge with feedback, therefore, is to make sure that your delivery succeeds in helping the rational cortex override the angsty amygdala. This is not easy, and diversity in the workplace, in fact, increases the likelihood of feedback being perceived as hostile.  

Of course, diversity at work today encompasses many types of differences, such as cultures, genders and generations. In this article, I will explain how people can improve how they deliver feedback across cultures.

Constructive intention is easily misinterpreted

When working with people from a wide variety of cultures and countries, the risk of upsetting someone when giving feedback is high. That’s because what’s considered constructive feedback in one culture can be perceived as destructive in another.

For example, American culture is often stereotyped as exceedingly direct. In some aspects, it’s true. Americans tend to value clear, simple communication. They also like recapping key points and confirming decisions in writing. However, the story changes when it comes to giving negative feedback.

In those situations, most Americans will try to preserve the self-esteem of the person receiving the feedback. They may then give three positives for every negative and use superlatives to accentuate the positive, even when the negative is the key point. (“Overall it was excellent. To this part you might want to make some small tweaks.”)

However, wrapping positives around a negative is downright confusing for people in countries where managers are much more likely to tell it like it is. I’m referring to the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Israel, Russia and France – where I live – to name a few.

Take Olga, a Ukrainian human resources (HR) executive, who told me, “We don’t perceive it as demotivating or unkind to say to a colleague, ‘This is not OK,’ or ‘This behaviour must change.’ We don’t talk about what we liked and appreciated before getting to the point.”

Olga was in for a rude awakening when she moved from Ukraine to the United States. In her new job, she faced a colleague, Cathy, who made payroll mistakes every month. Privately, Olga told her, “This absolutely cannot continue. Your mistakes are creating big headaches.”

Later, when another manager emailed Olga to complain that Cathy had got the amounts wrong yet again, Olga responded that it was completely unacceptable and copied Cathy in the email so that she could benefit from seeing the whole thread. To Olga’s surprise, her own boss stopped by to explain none of this was okay. As it turned out, Cathy had been so upset, she had asked to change jobs.

When in Rome

The case of Jethro, an American working in Silicon Valley, is also enlightening. Jethro is soft-spoken, but forthright. After he gave feedback (by video) to co-workers in Thailand, HR in Bangkok complained that he was bullying his Thai colleagues.

According to the head of HR in Thailand, the American tendency to state the area in need of improvement already feels aggressive to a Thai. She added that Americans’ habit of recapping key points in writing “makes us feel that you don’t trust us to do as we say or are trying to get us in trouble”.

It would have been more effective if, instead, Jethro had clearly praised what was good and left out what was bad. For example, about a presentation he’d just seen, he might say, “I especially liked the examples you gave in the presentation last week.” To a Thai colleague, this would clearly mean that the examples from this morning’s presentation were lacking.

The main advice in such intercultural situations is to listen carefully to the usual manners of speech of your counterparts. This can allow you to gauge how direct you can be when giving feedback.

For instance, when voicing criticisms, people from more direct cultures tend to use reinforcing adverbs, as in “This is absolutely inappropriate”. By contrast, more indirect cultures often use words that soften the criticism, such as “kind of”, “a little” and “maybe”. They may also use deliberate understatements, such as “This is just my opinion”, when they really mean “This is obvious to everyone.”

While some caution is warranted in terms of how feedback is delivered, managers shouldn’t shy away from giving it. When done right, feedback can truly be a gift to individuals and organisations.


Practice Your Writing

How do you prefer to receive feedback? Do you prefer a direct or indirect approach?
And how do you usually give feedback? Are you direct or indirect? 
Have you ever had a cultural clash when giving/receiving feedback? Share your story. 

16 respostas para “The Pitfalls of Giving Feedback Across Cultures”

  1. Hi Ho

    This article was very interesting. Tks for sharing it. Unfortunately, most professionals don’t know how to receive and give feedback. I don’t like to get feedback from people that I don’t trust in. I prefer receiving a constructive feedback, regardless the approach.
    It’s very important to know about different culture, if you want to be successful in this diverse business world.
    See you !

    1. Hi, Felipe!

      It’s good to know you liked the article! 😉

      Please keep sharing your thoughts and impressions!

  2. This article is very clear about the problem. I am working in a American Company , but I need to talk with the different nationalities.
    This is confusion , because Some nationalities don’t like receiving feedback while others are very sincere.

    I like receiving feedback directly, but I prefer it not to be in public.

    1. Hello Chris!

      An accurate article, isn’t it?
      I agree with you, and I think everybody prefers to be given feedback directly, never in public!

      – in an American
      – but I need to talk with people from different nationalities
      – This can be confusing OR It can cause confusion

      See ya!

  3. I believe feedback is an amazing form to improve ourselves, I enjoy receiving it directly. In my company, we have a culture to approach it once a year directly with our manager tracking our delivery.

    1. Very good, João Pedro! 🙂

      Just a minor correction:
      – with our manager, who tracks our outcomes, results or performances

    1. Amazing, Clarice!!!
      We’re glad to know we’re providing relevant content for you career!
      Stay tuned for more!

  4. This article is very assertive, I love reading it. I like learning and improving my knowledge so any constructive feedback is valuable. I think the nature of my responses is more direct because of my personality, but it is necessary to be aware of cultural nuances when interacting with diverse audiences to ensure effective communication and understanding.

  5. I prefer receive a feedback in a direct approach because it will be clear how I can improve my skills and the manner of doing something. I generally give feedback to people in a indirect approach because I am a person that worries a lot with the people’s feelings.

    1. Very nice, Rosimeri!

      And we really appreciate to work with thoughtful leaders!

      Just a PS:
      – in an indirect
      – I am a person who worries (better: who cares) a lot about people’s feelings

  6. Great article. Undoubtedly, in intercultural situations, understanding the customary ways of speaking of the interlocutors is essential for giving effective feedback, ensuring that it is in line with cultural expectations and avoiding wrong interpretations.

    1. Good job Gladys!

      You mean the three classes , right? Interesting!

      We’re glad you liked it! See ya!

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