Hungry for a Feedback Sandwich?

Receiving feedback (solicited or unsolicited) is an opportunity for us to get a bit of a glimpse of ourselves from the outside; to understand the impact we have on others.

There’s been much written about the most effective ways to deliver feedback, and even on the best ways to receive feedback (Thanks for the Feedback, Heen/Stone). And while all that research has been instrumental in easing the sting of delivery and allowing for growth (versus crushing the spirit), the clear majority of suggestions and solutions are focused around what works best in US culture, for those born and raised here.

Fair enough. But what if you have a multicultural team? What if your team is spread out all over the world? Or maybe you’re a foreign-born professional who’s leading a team in the US? Then, it’s worth another look.

Different cultures have varying philosophies around giving feedback, especially when it comes to negative feedback. Individuals from countries such as the Netherlands, Israel and Russia tend to be more direct in their delivery, placing a high value on honesty and transparency. Whereas those from countries like Arabia, Thailand and Japan tend to be more indirect and subtle with their feedback, to maintain respect and preserve relationships. Metaphors may be used to demonstrate or connect ideas. Folks in the US, UK, Canada and Australia tend to fall in the middle of the spectrum, straddling direct and indirect styles.

No one position on this spectrum is right, nor wrong. But operating without some awareness of these differences can cause real problems when you’re the one delivering the message to someone accustomed to an alternative style. Even words such as excellent, good, ok, and adequate can take on different meanings (subtle and not so subtle) within different cultures.

And, really, since the only conversation that matters is the one you’re having in the moment, it’s important to understand that it’s all relative.

In the US, many are accustomed to the “Feedback Sandwich”, an approach which softens the potential blow of negative feedback by “sandwiching” the not-so-good news between two layers of “here’s what you’re really great at” acknowledgements. Though there are pros and cons to this approach, it’s widely used to encourage continued successes, while pointing individuals in the direction of growth.

If you’re a manager in the US giving feedback to a team member originally from the Netherlands, for example, you may walk away from the discussion feeling good about your delivery. While they might be confused by your mixed messages, unclear about where they stand and what’s expected next.

By contrast, after giving the very same feedback to a Japanese team member, they might feel as though you were overly harsh and unnecessarily direct, possibly even harming the relationship in some way.

Having awareness about how folks from other cultures ‘interact’ with feedback is critical to successfully communicating, regardless of which side of the conversation you’re on; delivering or receiving, US or foreign-born. With that in mind, here are some tips to help open communications and minimize unintended confusion.

  • When delivering feedback do a bit of homework first. Who are you speaking to? What is their cultural background, their command of the English language? Keeping in mind that providing feedback to a subordinate or colleague should be offered as a gift, something to aid with their self-awareness and development. To do that, they need to be able to really hear it, to consume it. What adjustments can you make to your own approach that will help them receive the message you mean to get across? Then ask for feedback on your feedback! Open up a discussion allowing them to tell you in their own words what they understand. Note where the discrepancies are. Where were you clear, vague, repetitive, overly obvious, hurtful, avoiding something?
  • When on the receiving end of feedback, remember to stay open. Does the provider have a different style of delivery than you’re accustomed to? How can you prepare ahead of time to better understand what’s coming? Consider having a discussion before the feedback is given to offer assistance on what works best for you. If something is unclear, don’t hesitate to ask for clarification. If the information is too “in your face”, offering a metaphor or story can confirm your understanding and help summarize. Regardless of how it’s delivered, choosing to believe that they want to assist in your development can help smooth over any awkwardness.
  • If you’re part of a multicultural team, propose creating an agreed upon approach, a common language. As a group, discuss and structure ways to offer and receive feedback within the team. Create an understanding of how performance measurement terminology is defined and used in your communications. Work towards an environment that freely welcomes feedback, assuming unconditional positive regard.
  • Lead by example. Whether you’re a designated leader or an individual contributor, modeling how to ask for and receive feedback with an open mind, curiosity, professionalism and grace is the best way to build trust and create an environment where feedback is generously offered, well received, and used to everyone’s benefit.

Check out Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map, for more specifics on how to bridge the feedback communication gaps.