How To Give and Receive Feedback Across Cultures

by Kylee Stone Mar 23,2022
Engagedly
PODCAST

The People Strategy Leaders Podcast

with Srikant Chellappa, CEO

Over the last decade or two, the world is increasingly becoming a global village. Technological advancements have meant that businesses can now employ and work with remote workers around the globe. The new opportunity has brought people from different cultures to work together, creating a multicultural environment. 

One of the tricky parts of this development is communication, especially when giving feedback. Feedback across cultures is a sensitive and challenging topic and will only get more popular because of the increasing popularity of multicultural workplaces. This article will discuss the various forms of feedback, why it is tricky, and how to improve your feedback.

Also read: Performance Review Phrases And Wordings 2022

Why Is Giving Feedback Across Cultures Tricky?

As shown in this study by Officevibe, 65% of employees want more feedback, and 69% believe they would perform better at their workplace if recognized for their efforts. It isn’t surprising that employees want feedback as a source of motivation and growth. No one wants stagnancy. Organizations have also discovered the many advantages of giving regular feedback. 

When it comes to giving feedback across cultures, there are more variables at play here, and this section will help us understand some of them.

  • Upbringing 

Most of us can trace our first communicative interaction with early childhood. This period is where you learn how to communicate with your family. Part of what you would pick up is the subtle styles of communication, which are hand gestures, facial expressions, and other non-verbal forms of communication. 

In fact, nonverbal communication can make up to 55% of what we relate, with 38% attributed to our tone and only 7% comprising the words themselves. This behavior is ingrained in us and reinforced by friends, social gatherings, and learning centres. If an individual has been told all their life to behave, speak and act in a certain way, it becomes second nature to them. This habit will follow them to the workplace.

Also read: What is a performance management system?
  • Exposure 

Humans believe their way of speaking, acting, and responding is how others will also behave. Sadly, this mindset is a bubble experience created by our lack of exposure to other cultures and their peculiar communication styles. 

Although the internet has made it possible to search about the culture of people, reading it online and experiencing it are entirely two different things. Even if you casually know someone from a different culture, it’s likely a different ballgame when in an office setting.

These are two common reasons employee feedback may be tricky in a multicultural setting. 

Feedback Styles

When you talk about feedback, we mean both positive and constructive feedback. Companies pay attention to how frequently they give positive feedback and how well they present constructive feedback. 

We can say the same about a multicultural setting, where different cultures have various ways they express their positive and negative feedback. 

And so, in this section, we will explore some of those feedback styles from different cultures.

To better understand the various feedback across cultures, we will use the hamburger analogy of feedback to explain the different styles.

  • Only Meat 

We categorize the only meat approach as the direct method. The feedback is straightforward, blunt, and often comes out harsh. It is giving feedback with only the negatives and nothing positive. 

Countries that practice these include Germany, the Netherlands, and South Africa, to name a few. In a system like this, no feedback is good feedback. It means you are doing the right things.

Also read: OKRs for healthcare professionals
  • Meat and a Bun

The meat and bun approach is also a direct method, although a little less blunt. It is a straightforward system that gives negative feedback before positive feedback, highlighting what you have done well. 

This system emphasizes mistakes to improve performance but dwells very little on positive feedback. Some countries that practice this method are France, some German companies, Spain and Italy. Some Nordic countries also practice this approach. 

  • Whole Hamburger 

It has become a popular and widely used method. The approach suggests one starts with a positive comment about a project or behavior towards the project, followed by the meat, which is the negative comment. Finish the feedback process with another positive commentary. 

The indirect system tries to dress up the constructive feedback. It seeks to point out mistakes and encourage the receiver of the feedback. It’s a common approach in the United States, Australia, Canada, and the UK. 

  • Vegetarian 

This method is gentle and indirect about its feedback. The approach uses metaphors, stories, and even parables to pass on negative feedback. Some places prefer to give positive feedback and remain silent on the negative.

Others provide negative feedback in private. In some cultures, how close you are to the person also influences how you pass on the negative feedback. Some countries where we see this feedback approach include Japan, Korea, India, and Vietnam.

In recent times, the expansion of multinationals has influenced some of these countries’ feedback culture, and hence we see hybrids of a sort in some of them today.

Upgraders and Downgraders

In the last section, we spoke on the various feedback forms and how direct or indirect they are. Upgraders and downgraders are words used in the direct and indirect approach to either emphasize or soften the effect of constructive feedback.

  • Upgraders 

They are words like ‘absolutely’, ‘totally’, ‘strongly’, ‘fully’, and ‘completely’ are examples of upgraders. If we are to use them in a sentence, “This report is completely wrong,” or “This is totally unacceptable.” The goal of upgraders is to strengthen the feedback. Cultures that use the direct approach commonly use upgraders in their sentences.

  • Downgraders 

Downgraders are words that soften the effect of feedback. It can come as a roundabout method and is often paired with the indirect form of feedback.

Words like ‘maybe’, ‘a little’, ‘a bit’, ‘kind of’, and ‘slightly’. Examples in a sentence include, ‘maybe you should think about it’. ‘We need to put in a little more effort’. ‘You are kind of there’. These words are deliberate understatements to soften the blow. 

When properly utilized, upgraders and downgraders can become powerful tools when giving feedback across cultures.

How to Give and Receive Feedback Across Cultures

It’s one thing to know about different cultures and what words managers prefer to use when giving employees feedback. And another to implement the newfound knowledge. Here are some steps to take to improve your employee feedback across cultures.

  • Learn about the Culture 

There is a rather popular case study used online to portray this point. It’s the story of a German executive named Jens who went to the Shanghai manufacturing plant of his company to improve performance. What ended up happening was performance dipped within the first six months, key management members resigned, and his feedback style that worked in Germany was failing here. 

He later discovered that his direct approach to feedback demoralized his employees, and he quickly needed to change. With the help of a friend who was a local himself, he learned about the culture. He found out the direct approach wasn’t favorable in a country like China, where you needed to be more indirect with your constructive feedback and vocal about the positives.

The story is a real-life story that highlights the importance of observing and learning the cultural cues of a working environment. Jens learned it the hard way. Don’t be Jens. 

  • Develop a Feedback System That Works for Both Parties 

Still following Jens’ story, he had to adapt and develop a new feedback system that works with the Chinese. He didn’t want to be insincere with himself by adopting their method, so he had to build one. 

He needed a style that represented his German roots but was softer – so the Chinese employees didn’t lose motivation. Jens successfully created a hybrid that worked in that environment.

There is a popular slogan for managers who enter a new cultural setting. “Go native.” The problem with this slogan is you either overdo it or underdo it, causing more problems. The best solution is finding a hybrid that can work in the environment. 

Also read: 6 reasons to invest in a performance appraisal software
  • Ask for feedback on our feedback style 

This point sounds like an easy decision, but we humans have a history of complicating matters. Practice makes perfect, but feedback in the direct direction makes it worthwhile. Getting feedback from employees can help you keep improving your feedback system. Getting their opinion will also help give better constructive feedback to your employees.

  • Build Good Working Relationships with the People 

In the workplace, you don’t have to be friends with everyone. If both parties can duly perform their duties, that’s good enough. But you see, there is an advantage to being understood by your employees and colleagues as this helps when giving out feedback. 

Having a relationship can be as easy as being approachable, asking about other people’s days, giving your employees a chance to speak if they mess up, and complimenting them on their growth and positive performance. Doing all of this creates the atmosphere of someone who wants the best for them. 

Your constructive feedback is also much more receptive if they know you want to help them improve. Action speaks louder than words, so show them. 

In conclusion, giving and receiving feedback across cultures can be tricky but not impossible to learn. It’s a skill that will become increasingly useful as technology gets better and connects us. 


Learn how Engagedly can simplify your employee feedback process by requesting a demo with us.

Request A Demo

Kylee Stone

Kylee Stone supports the professional services team as a CX intern and psychology SME. She leverages her innate creativity with extensive background in psychology to support client experience and organizational functions. Kylee is completing her master’s degree in Industrial-Organizational psychology at the University of Missouri Science and Technology emphasizing in Applied workplace psychology and Statistical Methods.

Privacy Preference Center