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How to give negative feedback across cultural divides

Managers in different parts of the world are conditioned to give feedback in drastically different ways. Understanding why can help you critique more effectively, argues Erin Meyer, Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Insead where she is also the Programme Director of Managing Global Virtual Teams.

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Picture: Jane Kelly / Fotolia

In 1982, a plane flew through a cloud of volcanic ash over Indonesia and lost power to its engines. The British pilot calmly informed the passengers: “Good evening again ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain here. We have a small problem in that all four engines have failed. We’re doing our utmost to get them going and I trust you’re not in too much distress and would the chief steward please come to the flight deck.”

The pilot managed to land the plane safely at a nearby airport and his announcement has since been widely praised as typical example of British understatement. It also shows how British give negative feedback. The use what linguists call “downgraders” – words that soften the criticism, such as “kind of”, “sort of” and “a little bit”. More direct cultures such as the Germans for example use what linguists call “upgraders”, words preceding or following negative feedback that make it feel stronger, such as “absolutely” or “totally”.

This can create confusion with people from other cultures. Meyer quotes the example of a German finance director who at the beginning of his career misinterpreted his British boss’ suggestion “to think about” something. So he thought about it and decided not to do it. A little later he was surprised when he was accused of insubordination. What his British boss had said, meant “change your behaviour right away or else”. The German subsequently had to learn to listen to the raw message in the middle. He also reconsidered the way he phrased his messages to his British staff, which he had been delivering without any softeners.

“When giving negative feedback consider not only how many upgraders or downgraders you are using, but also whether to wrap positive feedback around negative feedback”, advises Insead’s Meyer. “In addition, try over time to be balanced in the amount of positive and negative feedback you give. If you notice something positive your colleague has done, say it there and then, with explicit appreciation. Then, if you need to criticise them later, your comments are more likely to be heard and considered rather than rejected out-of-hand.”

Over all, preferred styles of criticism and the reaction to it differ dramatically from one society to another. Thai managers have been taught not to criticise a colleague openly, while Dutch managers feel they ought to be honest and straight shooting. Americans are trained to mix positive messages in with the negative ones, and the French criticise a lot and praise very sparingly.

Find the full report here:

Giving Negative Feedback Across Cultures

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