Giving Cross-Cultural Feedback
« Business Leadership

Giving Cross-Cultural Feedback: Ultimate Guide for Small Businesses

Adelina Stefan underlines how an understanding of culture in the workplace is key to giving feedback without causing needless offense. Here are her steps in this Ultimate Guide.

3 mins readApril 05, 2022

Author's Bio:

Adelina Stefan is a Professional Certified Coach and Founder of Advanced Talent, designated by the International Coaching Federation with over 12 years’ experience as an Intercultural Facilitator, Trainer, Career & Expat Executive Coach. Adelina seeks to inspire ambitious professionals to create and implement their unique career blueprint.

Feedback is an essential part of communication in any workplace or organization. It's impossible to imagine effective management that does not involve issuing regular feedback. Communication is key for achieving productive engagement throughout the organizational chart. With the benefit of feedback, subordinates can tailor their efforts to meet the needs of the organization. Without sufficient feedback, team members can't live up to their best intentions.

Feedback Vs Criticism: What’s the Difference?

Business experts have long rejected the "tough as nails" style of leadership. These days, we universally agree that team members work better when they feel like trusted partners. Being stingy with praise can have a corrosive effect on employee motivation. Too often, people use feedback as a synonym for criticism. However, it is important to distinguish these two forms of communication.

Even if it is measured or moderate, criticism is intrinsically negatively connotated. In contrast, feedback can be positive. Feedback sessions usually involve positive and negative feedback. Negative comments are an inevitable part of running a team. However, you shouldn't neglect to provide feedback that is strictly encouraging. Strong leadership requires maintaining a positive workplace environment.

Why Culture Matters

Academics define culture as a collection of values and beliefs that mediate our daily activities. Like any other personal characteristic, culture has a big impact on communication style. Different cultures have varying standards affecting how people lead, manage conflict, and inspire teams. It's impossible to discuss culture without generalizing groups and nationalities.

Though this can be contentious, this approach is workable if you approach this discussion with a sense of compassion and acceptance. Instead of defining cultural characteristics as better or worse than others, one must stress that different cultures simply have different ways of communicating. Staying away from value judgments allows us to appraise and recognize our cultural differences.

You not only need to understand how culture affects the way your feedback is received; you should also understand how your own culture affects the way you deliver feedback.

In a corporate setting, cross-cultural feedback can be a potential source of discord and dissension. When done right, feedback can motivate and inspire team members. Especially for trainees, ill-considered feedback can undermine one's investment in the success of the group. Appropriate feedback is especially critical for including and engaging remote employees.

Communication Styles in Different Cultures

We can all readily agree on the need for politeness in the workplace. This is especially true in an international context. However, politeness itself is a quality that we might subdivide further.

Researchers Brown and Levinson use the categories of positive politeness, indirect politeness, and negative politeness. When we speak of negative politeness, we use the word negative differently than when we speak of negative feedback. Negative politeness involves omitting objectionable behavior. It also includes giving others space and having respect for their privacy. Indirect politeness may involve the use of implication, irony, and generalization.

When it comes to feedback, you should pick the politeness type that matches the needs of the situation. Besides the culture of the recipient, one should weigh the urgency of the message and the power dynamics between speaker and listener. Other key considerations include the closeness of the relationship and the level of imposition inherent in the message.

Understanding national communication styles can prove key in conducting an effective international business negotiation. Every culture has distinctive features defining how people think of themselves and relate to others. Experts have helpfully divided cultural behavioral modes into three broad divisions: linear-active, multi-active and reactive.

1. Linear-active cultures

A linear-active culture is one that emphasizes things like punctuality, fact-checking and ceaseless forward action. Directness and bluntness are more common in these cultures. Practice is preferred to theory, and rules are relatively inflexible.

Germany, Northern Europe and the United States are typically cited as linear-active cultures. The linear-active culture (LAC) lionizes "getting to the point" and "getting down to business." In discussion, there is an expectation that everyone will take turns speaking and listening. Though this is a generalization, it is not a stereotype one should apply slavishly to others. In other words, individual variation is great throughout all the cultures of the world.

2. Multi-active cultures

Multi-active cultures (MACs) include the cultures of France, Greece, and Italy. These cultures are typically viewed as warmer, more emotional and more impulsive. Improvisation and on-the-spot solutions are emphasized over rigidity and planning. These are loquacious cultures where discourse and conviviality are encouraged.

Compared to LACs, MACs emphasize theory as opposed to practice. Conversational styles tend to be more animated. Interrupting and speaking over others is less likely to be seen as "beyond the pale." Instead, interrupting is more likely to be seen as part of the natural give-and-take of conversation.

3. Reactive cultures

Reactive cultures (RCs) include the cultures of Japan, China and Korea. Emphasized values include courtesy, accommodation, deference and self-sacrifice. Even more so than LACs, RCs follow a "one at a time" conversational model. Interruptions are vanishingly rare.

Though key etiquette rules apply to all, etiquette tends to be filtered through deeply respected social hierarchies. Although strict about etiquette, RCs are not rigidly inflexible. Members of these cultures can readily adapt to linear activity and multi-activity. In RCs, communication does not necessarily involve dialogue.

Navigating Unfamiliar Cultural Territory

Open-mindedness and patience are key when entering an unfamiliar cultural territory. This could involve a physical change of location or simply starting a new international business relationship. When entering a new cultural setting, you'll naturally want to educate yourself about cultural norms and expectations. Besides reading up on the unfamiliar culture, find yourself a cultural mentor who can provide you with tailored guidance.

Even after all you can do, you are bound to encounter some difficulties while engaging in cross-cultural feedback. Fortunately, compassion and forbearance are common qualities throughout all of the world's cultures. People intuitively try to excuse others for the occasional social faux pas. What's critical is to have a patient, open and accepting attitude. Rather than getting defensive, show gratitude when someone educates you about better ways to effect cross-cultural dialogue.

Before engaging in feedback, it can be helpful to ask explicit questions about communication norms. This implicitly shows humility, an important part of business leadership. Here are some of the questions you can use to prepare the way for better cross-cultural communication:

  • "What do you value most when it comes to communicating about our collaboration here?"

  • "I want to make sure we can work together and communicate well. Can you share your preferences for giving and receiving feedback?"

  • "Is there anything I should know about your preferences, expectations and style of working?"

You may already have a standardized method for issuing feedback. Still, you may want to revisit and readapt your model to take cultural differences into greater consideration. Though cultural misunderstandings are part of life, you shouldn't view cross-cultural interactions with fear or trepidation.

If you take a few basic precautions, you'll find that partners from other cultures can bring crucial new insights to the collaborative process. With a bit of foresight and understanding, you can inspire employees from all kinds of cultural backgrounds.