Cultural Diversity

How do you like your e-mails?


Short, sweet, direct + to the point?

Warm and friendly, opening with a nice greeting and closing with a cheery good-bye?

Or long, detailed, and packed full of data, facts and other useful information?

Chances are that the way you typically write and like to receive e-mails is closely related to your individual personality style and, in the case of business correspondence, the culture of the organization in which you work. Which can be fine if you're only corresponding within your own organization with people who share your personality style preferences.

What happens, though, when you have to communicate with someone who doesn't share your preferences or cultural context? Someone in a different part of the organization, with a different personality style, or someone working in a different country who speaks a different native language? What do you do in those cases to make sure that your e-mail message is received and understood in the way you intended?

I think that the same basic principles that apply to good marketing and effective presentations are useful here too:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Put yourself in their "shoes" and imagine the context in which they may be reading your e-mail: on their Blackberry while walking to a meeting, at their desk as the 10th in a pile of 100 messages in their in-box, or at home after their kids have gone to bed. 
  3. Clarify what you want them to do in response to your e-mail.
  4. Write to connect with them: considering their perspective, speaking in language that they understand, and addressing their needs.
  5. Clearly articulate what you need from them in response and when you need it and why (e.g. what's in it for them).

If you're communicating with someone who speaks a different language, then eliminating extra words, avoiding slang, and using visual cues (bullet points, numbers, or colorful, bold type) can all be helpful.

If you're communicating with someone you know well, a friendly greeting may be just the right way to start your e-mail.

Sometimes a very brief, urgent, direct message is absolutely the way to go.

There's no magic formula for the perfect e-mail, especially when you're communicating across cultures, time zones and language barriers, but starting from the recipient's point of view will almost always increase the odds that your intended message will be received and understood.

This article was first published on Ann Marie's Blog in 2011

Feedback, criticism and motivation across cultures



As a leader of a culturally-diverse team, have you ever been surprised by the reaction of a team member to your well-intended feedback?

For example:

  • Have your direct, constructive suggestions for improvement ever caused strong, negative reactions from subordinates, or actually shut down progress on a project?
  • Has your tendency to wrap criticism in compliments ever caused confusion, or led to the misperception by the recipient that "everything is all right?"
  • Has your belief that "no news is good news" at work ever led to misunderstandings between you and team members who are waiting to hear your positive feedback about their work?
  • Has your public praise of an individual's work ever been met with a less positive reaction than you expected?

Positive feedback and constructive criticism can be powerful tools to inspire and motivate team members to achieve better performance.

They can also backfire, and do more harm than good, when we neglect to take into account the personality style preferences and cultural backgrounds of the people in our team.

Several years ago, some of my Dutch colleagues told me - in their typically direct way - that my tendency to offer almost constant positive praise made me seem soft as a manager. They resisted my attempts to teach them to deliver bad news tactfully - sandwiched between compliments - saying that this approach would be perceived as fake, or even dishonest in The Netherlands. And they seemed shocked to learn that our corporate performance review process was an annual requirement, even when they were doing a great job.

Each of these small examples were big learning opportunities for me, and I'm still grateful for this blunt feedback from my Dutch colleagues. Their insights inspired me to learn more about how to effectively motivate people from different cultural backgrounds, and to share what I learn with others.

I thought of these colleagues recently while reading this article, about the "wildly different ways people give feedback around the world." The Dutch aren't represented here, but the general insights about the differences between French, German, Japanese, American, and other work cultures offer an intriguing starting point for discussions with team members from around the world.

Look at this article together, ask your team members what they agree and disagree with, and see what you can learn from each other.

You may be surprised.

I hope you'll also be inspired and motivated to achieve better performance, together.


* This article was first published on Ann Marie's Blog in 2016.