cultural feedback

Providing Feedback Across Cultures

Providing feedback can be tricky at the best of times. However, throw in cross-cultural considerations and you’re talking a completely different game.

cultural feedback
Photo by Adam Jang on Unsplash

As we continue our Cultural Intelligence series, I thought it would be useful to discuss some of the different ways of providing performance feedback that is culturally aligned.

For a start, giving feedback, both positive and constructive is an important aspect of professional development. Most managers appreciate that it is a necessary requirement of their roles although in my experience, many find it difficult and uncomfortable to do it well. It becomes even more tenuous when doing so across cultures.

A client who is a senior leader, recently related an incident where giving performance feedback across cultures backfired. The client, who was in Japan, but not Japanese, was giving feedback to one of his direct reports there. The purpose of the conversation was to improve the performance of the person and their team.

However, the outcome of the feedback session was that the employee felt inferior and inadequate in their role and offered to resign. This was definitely not the intention of the senior leader. As a result, he then had to invest significant time to re-engage the employee, boost confidence and reconsider his delivery style.  

Paved with Good Intention

This is an example of how a good intention can be derailed through a lack of cultural understanding. When working across cultures, it can be useful to have a repertoire of different approaches to feedback so that the intended intentions are achieved.

I want to acknowledge one of my early mentors, Dr Asma Abdullah, who introduced me to these different models of feedback. They are somewhat tongue in-cheek but do provide some alternative ways of thinking about how to give feedback. They are:

The Hamburger

This is a long established, traditional style that most multi-nationals use. It’s where you start with a positive comment (the bun) followed by the negative (the meat) and then conclude with a positive comment (the other part of the bun). So, it’s a (+-+) framework.

This effectively buffers the negative comments with positives ones. Cultures in which this approach would be appropriate are the USA, Australia, UK and Canada.

The Open Sandwich

This style is somewhat more direct, providing constructive comments (the meat) followed by some positive ones (the bread). So, it’s more of a (-+) framework. Cultures where this style is best utilised are the European countries – France, Spain, Italy, Germany -and Nordic countries.

The Meat Only

This is a more direct approach than the open sandwich style, where only the constructive comments are given. There is no buffering and hence it’s a (-) framework. This style would only work in cultures where very direct communication is valued and appreciated such as in The Netherlands, South Africa, Finland and Israel.

The Vegetarian

This style is a rather gentle and indirect way to give feedback. Instead of being direct with the constructive comments (meat), it is hinted at  or subtly made through the use of a story, analogy, metaphor, suggestion or an example of what is expected.  It’s more of a (++) framework.

This approach would be best used in high context cultures such as India, Pakistan, China, Korea, Japan, Thailand and Vietnam.

Consider Your Feedback Repertoire

Giving feedback in a way that achieves an objective and brings about positive shifts and encouragement is greatly assisted when it is done in adherence to the cultural context of the situation. Take some time to assess and consider which style or styles you use. How effective are they in your own cultural context? Would they also be effective in a different cultural setting?

What other styles do you think you may need to add to your own repertoire? Why don’t you try the different models and see what feedback you get!