The Culture Map - Chapter 2 (Upgraders, downgraders and the art of…
The Culture Map - Chapter 2
Evaluating performance and providing negative feedback
Some cultures that are low-context may be indirect with negative feedback and vice versa - being low context does not mean direct negative feedback
What may be considered constructive criticism in some cultures may be viewed as destructive in another - getting negative feedback can motivate your employees and strengthen your reputation as a fair colleague, but getting it wrong can demoralise an entire team and earn you the reputation of being incompetent
Managers in different parts of the world are conditioned to give feedback in different ways. Chinese managers learn to never criticise a colleague openly or in front of others, while the Dutch learn to always be honest and give the message straight. Americans tend to wrap positive messages around negative ones, French criticise passionately and praise sparingly
Upgraders, downgraders and the art of translation
More direct cultures use 'upgraders' - words preceding or following negative feedback that make it feel stronger such as absolutely, totally or strongly ("absolutely inappropriate" "totally unacceptable")
More indirect cultures use 'downgraders' - words that soften criticism 'kind of' 'sort of' 'a bit' 'maybe'
Another type of downgrader is a deliberate understatement e.g. "We are not quite there yet"
On the evaluating scale, most European countries fall to the direct side of the scale, Russians, Dutch and Germans being the most frank
American culture is in the middle of the scale, nearby the British, Latin Americans and South Americans are middle toward indirect. Furthest to the right (indirect) fall most of the Asian countries
Several countries have different positions on the evaluating scale from those they have on the communicating scale. For this reason there is a gap between our assumptions about certain countries and their placement on the evaluating scale
Explanation is in the fact that stereotypes about how directly directly people speak generally reflect their cultures' position on the communicating scale, not the evaluating scale. The French for example are stereotyped as being indirect because of their high-context communication style despite the fact that they give negative feedback more directly
One high-context country on the direct side of the evaluating scale is Israel
Mapping communicating scale against the evaluating scale gives us four quadrants: low context and direct, low context indirect etc.
Low context and direct negative feedback
Take any messages they send literally and understand that it is not intended to be offensive
When working with cultures more direct than yours on the evaluating scale, don't try to do it like them - if you don't understand the subtle rules that separate what's appropriately frank and what is insensitive
High context and direct negative feedback
Upgraders can be replaced with downgraders
Low context and indirect negative feedback
When providing an evaluation, be explicit and low-context with both positive and negative feedback. Don't launch into the negatives until you have also explicitly stated something that you appreciate about the person or the situation.
The positive comments should be honest and stated in a detailed, explicit manner
Try overtime to be balanced in the amount of positive and negative feedback you give
Frame your behaviour in cultural terms - talk about the cultural differences which explain your communication style. If possible, show appreciation for the other culture while laughing humbly at your own
You can explain your natural feedback style - If I say okay it means very good, If I say good it means excellent - framing comments builds awareness among people on both sides and may lead to useful discussions about other cultural misunderstandings
High context and indirect negative feedback
When giving negative feedback to someone from quadrant D don't give feedback to an individual in front of a group - even if you use a lot of soft downgraders or a joke to lighten the mood. And it also applies to positive feedback.
It may be embarrassing to be singled out for positive praise in front of others - give individual feedback to the individual and group feedback to the group.
Another tool is to blur the message - highly effective in many Asian cultures if it used skillfully and appropriately
Use food and drink to blur an unpleasant message - when people are relaxed is a good time to give feedback. It is not spoken of again, but the feedback is passed and the receiver is able to take action without any humiliation. Applies in Japan, Thailand, Korea, China, Indonesia
Give feedback slowly, over a period of time so that it gradually sinks in - doesn't mean repeat the same message periodically, it means make small references to the changes that need to be made gently, gradually building a clear picture as to what should be done differently
Final strategy: say the good and leave out the bad - e.g. only focus on the good 2 out of 4 pieces of work - outline why they are good, they will understand the other 2 were not
What does it mean to be polite?
Politeness is in the eye of the beholder. Giving feedback especially when negative, is a sensitive business. It can be made a lot worse if the person receiving feedback believes he or she has been spoken to rudely.