Giving Negative Feedback Across Cultures

Giving negative feedback across cultures takes more than using an understandable language. It’s even more than using the right words. It has to do with how directly you deliver your feedback.

American has a unique culture in delivering negative feedback. Even though American culture is considered a direct one, it is less straightforward than most European cultures when giving negative feedback. The typical American formula for delivering negative feedback is to soften it with positive messages up-front before honest criticism. Then, after delivering the constructive criticism, the American will wrap it up on a positive note again.

The American feedback delivery formula:
Lisa: Hans, you are delivering exceptional quality in your coding. 
Hans: Great to know. 
Lisa: But other engineers can’t catch up on ways to integrate your coding into theirs. Is it possible to collaborate more on that front? 
Hans: Can you give examples? 
… (Lisa and Hans worked on a solution)
: Thanks for the effort. We are all proud to have you on our team. Keep up the excellent work. 

Most Europeans value directness. The more direct it is, the more authentic and valuable the feedback appears. If you want to let your French manager know his department spending exceeds the budget, don’t preempt your request by praising the great work he is doing. State your request, give him the context, and work together towards a solution. To the Europeans, American’s way of providing feedback appears confusing, and at worst, inauthentic. Some Europeans think it’s a waste of time to sweet-coat the conversation. Why can’t we just say what’s the core issue, and continue with work?

On the other hand, Americans at times consider Europeans rude and disrespectful in their feedback. One European manager tries to give explicit and direct feedback to his American mentee whenever he notices some mistakes she made. He hopes to help her grow because she is relatively young in her career. However, without giving praise ahead of his negative feedback, she feels he’s always trying to find fault with her.

On the other end of the spectrum, eastern cultures appreciate indirect feedback. Feedback is best if given in a 1-to-1 setting because of the honor-shame-based culture. In these cultures, to openly point out someone’s incompetence or mistake is a shaming act. Even in a private setting, negative feedback needs to be delivered indirectly.

The Indirect feedback delivery formula:
(Context: Chen worked hard for the seasonal sales report but delivered it late)
John: Chen, thank you for taking the time to have this private chat.
Chen: Sure! You have been a great manager to all of us. Anything I can do for you?
John: I noticed you worked very hard on this season’s sales report. Have you been able to spend time with your family lately?
Chen: Oh yes. They are doing well.
John: It will be great to have this report for the next season a couple days before the deadline. That will give us some time to work out quarterly bonuses. Is there anything I can help to make it easier?
Chen: No problem. We will do that.
John: Thank you again. You have been a pillar for our team. 

Notice that there is no mentioning of the late report. Instead of pointing out what did not go well, giving feedback in these cultures can focus on what can be done better going forward.

Erin Meyer suggests a few steps to overcome the negative feedback cultural barrier:

  1. Be explicit and clear with BOTH positive and negative feedback. However, do not launch into the negative part before giving appreciation about the person or the situation.
  2. Try to balance the amount of positive and negative feedback given.
  3. Bring up the cultural aspect of communication before giving feedback. If tension appears, it creates an opportunity to exchange cultural differences.

Feedback is effective only if the recipient receives it well. For global teams, reducing cultural misunderstanding in giving negative feedback goes a long way.

Part of this article references The Culture Map by Erin Meyer.