Giving constructive feedback has become an important skill in today’s business world. There are hundreds of articles in the internet and training opportunities to be able to do it “right”. But what does it mean to do it right? Is this a method of our choice? Who is it relevant for? Where and how should you use it?
The most popular method I’ve heard of and the most hated by me personally is ‘The sandwich’. The idea is that you start off with saying something pleasant, appreciate successes, then move on to the bit you’d like the person to work on and improve, ending the feedback again with something positive. Sounds good. The problem starts when you use this method in a Direct Negative Feedback culture.
For a person who prefers a more direct way of giving and receiving feedback your constructive feedback might not make any difference at all. What they hear is that they did everything right and are doing a great job despite of one little slip that the manager just needed to tell you cause he didn’t have anything else negative to talk about. The negative point you want to cover in two other positives simply doesn’t stand out enough to do something about it. While working with a Direct Negative Feedback cultures you need to be specific in telling what was good or bad about the work they did. If you focus your attention on it, it will be clear that this is what the person should improve the next time.
What is still important to remember and what I was writing about in the previous post is that the perception of the scales and location of given cultures on scales is relative. You need to be mindful of the relation of your location on the scale in comparison to the other person you work with.
Here’s my example:
For me, with my preference of direct communication in general, whether that’s feedback, casual conversation or a brainstorming discussion, it was difficult to adjust my style to the English one. More on the discussions part to come in the next articles. With feedback however, I also noticed some interesting feelings I never thought I would have.
Theoretically, I know quite a couple of methods of feedbacking, communication styles etc., I have been training people on it and half of my psychological studies were related to the topic. In practice however, you don’t always realize how much the communication style combined with our cultural preferences might make a difference. My example is that when I started working in a British environment, I was quite often confronted with statements that I’m too direct, too harsh. Or that people don’t usually say something out loud. And I did. And I still do although I’m trying to be more mindful of the culture here – ongoing learning! Given the above, I wasn’t ready to properly receive a feedback the English way. Even small things that could be improved have been packed in the positives, they really made sure not to hurt my feelings. The problem with that is that I was not feeling treated seriously. For me, if someone is treating me with such a delicacy, I automatically feel more vulnerable as well. That’s why I didn’t treat the negative feedback as seriously as I should have. Was the whole conversation just about this one thing that I could have done differently the other time? Why didn’t you tell that to me right away so I could work on it back then? That would be my first thought after the conversation. It was a mix of frustration and anger I guess (oh come on, tell me what you really want to say and cut that positive crap). In result, I didn’t really properly listen to the positive stuff as I was waiting for the bad stuff to finally come up.
The reason for me feeling that way might partly be because Poland and England are quite apart on both the Evaluating and Disagreeing scales. That’s why the negative feedback is usually given in a separate space without witnesses, nicely wrapped in the positives to make sure you don’t confront anyone in public and ruin their reputation.
Cross-cultural feedback – practical tips
So what should you do to make sure the feedback you give is understood by the other person correctly?
- Don’t try to go to the far end of either of dimensions just to match either the direct or indirect style.
- Instead, take into consideration the relative positions of yours and your conversation partner’s cultures on the scale.
- If you’re more towards the direct side, define the structure of your feedback conversation upfront. Say that the way you usually do it is that you focus on the things the person might want to work on in the future and develop. You might also need to prepare a specific list of negatives that you want to mention, but also positives. Especially if you have the tendency to omit the positives and are working with someone from more Indirect Negative Feedback culture it’s good to have a back up list of things you might say to smoothen your communication a little bit.
- If you’re more towards the indirect side of the scale than the other person, make sure to also state your communication style upfront. Say that you will be mentioning some positive and some negative feedback points, that you’ve picked them specifically for this conversation and they are all of the same importance. That way, you can still use the same strategy of feedbacking as you’ve used before, but the other person will be aware that it’s not only the positives that they need to take out of that conversation. Don’t try to be overly direct as it’s very easy to cross the line if you don’t know the exact level of directedness you can allow yourself.
- Be yourself and be honest. As long as you don’t try to play someone else than you are it will be alright. The worst thing in my opinion is to use different feedback techniques in a way that is overcoached and doesn’t come across as genuine.