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.