Now let’s imagine you are a boss, and need to reprimand an employee on an unmet target. Would you lay it out sharp and direct and give no room for misunderstanding, or would you use words of encouragement interspersed with what could have been improved? What is the best way to give feedback?
Take a look at this Anglo-Dutch translation guide:
In the following graph, Meyer ranks high- and low-context cultures based on how they give direct or indirect negative feedback.
Cultures in Quadrant B are complex: they communicate by both “reading the air” of unspoken messages, and simultaneously giving negative feedback. “Russians, for example, often pass messages between the lines, but when it comes to criticism they have a directness that can startle their colleagues,” says Meyer. Compare that with quadrant C, where the US is described as one with methods often baffling to cross-cultural colleagues, “Americans are famed for their lack of subtlety, and will always call out the elephant in the room, quickly,”explains Meyer. The relationship is ripe for strife unless measures for clarity are outlined in advance.
Generally speaking, avoid direct confrontation. Language might need to become low-context, leveled for explicitness and transparency. Create an approach that balances negative and positive feedback equally. Acknowledging or reprimanding an action as it happens, instead of postponing it to a later date, avoids catching someone off guard. Replace singling out personal flaws with focus on the outcome of the work. Do not attack on a personal level, and focus solely on professional behavior. Be clear that you are giving feedback and do so privately.
In Quadrant D, Meyer is clear that members of these cultures may require specific attention. When giving negative feedback, frame what you’re about to do by explaining possible differences in feedback methods, while showing both appreciation and respect. Many cultures here consider the concept of “saving face” to be vital. Ed Dean, a THNK class 7 participant and a UK executive with 12 years of creative leadership experience in Shanghai, observed, “The thinking is to create a sense that people will be punished publicly, which guides behavior principles. The Western system is largely morally driven, so that you behave based on your internal sense of honor.” No matter the context, it is a leader’s duty to maintain a person’s humanity without attacking their work or their culture. Basic politeness, though at times subjective, will get you very far.
Naturally, this spans into a discussion of decision-making processes, and how they vary per culture.
On the consensual side of the graph is where decisions are made by unanimous agreement. Opinion is encouraged. Individuals feel they have a voice and collectively consider their way to be a form of modernity. It feels like being in a tribe, and the opposite forms of leadership appear rigid and outdated. Top-down decision-making systems – those made by individuals, often the boss – are considered oppressive to outsiders.
Context here, again, is key. Meyer suggests to instate a system of dividing decisions on a scale of Big D and little d. Be explicit: instating office casual Friday is a little d. Actively pursuing opportunities in a foreign market, Big D. Clarify your team’s cultural position on the Decision graph above, but also be keenly aware which method benefits the ultimate purpose. Japan may be the most consensual society, but their system is designed in a way that speeds up implementation. If everyone has been made part of the process along the way, through both formal and informal discussions, it is easier to get everyone to agree and be clear about their role. This is called nemawashi, a botanical term that defines a preventative root-binding method to protect against external damage. Japanese companies rarely disagree once the long, arduous process of making a Decision has been finalized at employee-level. All that’s left now is to go ahead and do it.