Giving Negative Feedback Across Cultures

If you’re concerned about giving negative feedback to someone in your multicultural team, you are not alone. By understanding how cultures approach the feedback process, you can deliver constructive criticism that the team member will receive well and even welcome.

A survey by the Harvard Business Review found that 44% of managers believe that giving negative feedback is stressful. It is amplified if your team member is from a different cultural background than you. As an intercultural coach, I have seen that giving negative feedback across cultures takes more than using the right words. It is about how directly you deliver your feedback. 

Understand that each culture communicates differently

All cultures have nuances that extend to how directly they communicate during tough conversations. Even though Americans might often be considered as being direct, the culture has a unique way of delivering negative feedback. It is less straightforward than how some European cultures might provide feedback. An American manager may deliver negative feedback by softening it with positive messages up-front before giving honest criticism. Then, after making constructive suggestions, they will end on a positive note.

Many western Europeans value directness. The more direct the feedback, the more authentic and valuable it appears. Some Europeans might find the American way of providing feedback confusing, and at worst, inauthentic. Some might think it’s a waste of time to sugar-coat the conversation. Why can’t we just say what the core issue is and continue with our work?

On the other hand, Americans may consider the way some Europeans deliver their feedback rude and disrespectful. One European manager tries to give explicit and direct feedback to his American mentee whenever he notices she has made a mistake. His intention is to help her grow because she is relatively new in her career. However, she feels he is always trying to find her faults because he doesn’t praise her before the negative feedback.

At the other end of the spectrum, many Asian cultures appreciate indirect feedback. Feedback is best if given in a 1-1 setting because of the honor-shame 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.

Give negative feedback effectively

If you want to inform your French manager that his department’s spending exceeds the budget, don’t preempt your request by praising his great work. State your request, give him the context, and work together toward a solution.  

With a team member who identifies with an Asian culture, I recommend the indirect feedback delivery formula unless you know they are okay with direct communication. Let’s look at the example of Chen, who 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. Is there anything I can do to help 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 next season’s report a couple of days before the deadline. That will give us some time to work out quarterly bonuses. Is there anything I can help with to make it easier?
Chen: No, thanks. We will do that.
John: Thank you again. You have been the pillar of our team. 

Notice that there is no mention of the late report. Instead of pointing out what didn’t work well, giving feedback in these cultures can focus on what can be done better in the future.

Be aware and tackle cultural barriers

  1. Be sensitive to the culture of the recipient when delivering feedback. Obtain a basic understanding of the preferred way of delivery before doing it. 
  1. Understand cultural and personality nuances and avoid stereotypes. For example, a Chinese person who has lived in the US for a few years will respond to feedback differently than the one who was born here.
  1. Bring up the cultural aspect of communication before giving feedback. If tension appears, it creates an opportunity to exchange cultural differences.

Feedback is only effective if the team member receives it well. If it’s delivered poorly, you risk breaking your international team member’s trust, so you should reduce cultural misunderstandings before sharing any criticism. In doing so, you will gain the trust of team members, and they will feel respected, accepted and psychologically safe.

Have you experienced a change in the team member’s dynamics after giving negative feedback? Or, if you received constructive feedback, how did you respond? Let me know in the comments.


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