Erin Meyer, an affiliate professor at INSEAD, contributed an insightful story to the The Harvard Business Review Blog Network. Meyer did a great job presenting a few real-life scenarios including the above graphic translating the intention of a British communication and what a Dutch person would tend to hear. This reminds us of so many situations we also grapple with in support clients with their cultural learning strategy.
Pretend you’re leading a global team remotely, with members from China, the Netherlands, France and the UK. You’ve just finished reviewing the first stage plans submitted to you by each division and you don’t like what you see. While your Chinese, Dutch, French and UK colleagues all speak perfectly good English (particularly the British team member), their work just isn’t up to par. Now, you’re minutes away from your weekly video conference call with your team members and you’ll have to deliver some bad news and criticism to get the project back on track.
Because you don’t have the time to call each colleague individually and deal with the specific issues in private. It all has to be handled over the group call. You have two cultures, the Chinese and British, who tend to communicate indirectly, and two other cultures, the French and Dutch, who tend to communicate very directly. The British can handle criticism, but it’s all done through inference and “sandwiching,” whereby the main point or criticism is preceded or placed between a pair of positive statements.
Say, Stan, lovely job on the graphics. Maybe we should
review the projections a bit, but the report looks great.
The only thing that matters in that statement is the bolded bit.
However, “sandwiching” tends to confuse the Dutch who deal much better with direct and honest feedback, and may irritate the French who find false pleasantries patronizing and insincere. And then you have your Chinese colleague who places enormous value upon maintaining “face” and could be very uncomfortable, possibly even ashamed, of having their work criticized before international colleagues. How do you go about delivering bad news and criticism to four colleagues from four distinct cultures?
At CultureWizard we think about these situations a lot. Here’s what we suggest when it comes to breaching the culture and criticism divide.
1. Talk about culture and how it impacts the way we say and hear things, particularly criticism. Give an example from your own culture to make the point and ask others to share their perspective.
2. Be mindful to keep up morale, and use a generally positive tone. Even though your Dutch and French colleagues might find it unnecessary and a tad frustrating, in general, they will be less frustrated than your Chinese colleague might be hurt and disengage if your criticism causes a loss of face.
3. Try not to embarrass anyone. If you’re having a particular issue with one colleague’s work, and you know they value maintaining face, discuss your issue in private rather than risk embarrassing them in front of the entire team.
4. Provide clear directives in written form so your team can have something to go back to after the meeting that constructively explains your criticism. If you know individuals expect you to manage process closely, don’t take anything for granted. Extra detail and context will help.
5. Be clear, concise and kind. Reiterate your main points before you get off the call and ask individuals to re-state in their own words what they’ve understood their next steps to be.
What stories and insights—good or bad—can you share when culture and criticism came face to face?