How to Give Feedback in a Cross-Cultural Setting

Apr 20, 2023 | 0 comments

“Bernie, you talk like a woman.” 

I had finished language study and was relatively ahead of where I should have been for only being in the country for two and a half years, when my Mongolian friend hit me with that statement. Most of the folks in the country thought I was “speaking well.” So, this took me and my ego by surprise. 

I looked at him with what I’m sure was a fair amount of bewilderment. 

“What do you mean I talk like a woman?” 

My friend replied with love and with Mongolian candor. 

“You’re too polite. Mongolian men don’t use polite language. They address each other directly. You shouldn’t explain yourself. Just say what you mean.” 

Lessons learned. 

Language shapes a culture. Culture shapes a language.  

As cross-cultural workers, we must learn both. 

If my cross-cultural chops had been a little more acute in those days, I would have picked up on my information much sooner. Mongolia is a place where feedback is not polite by my American standards. As opposed to many other cultures in Asia, feedback is direct and to the point.  

As I learned this about my host culture, I saw their direct approach on display every day. 

When you walk into a restaurant, Mongolian language literally translates: Coffee, give

Versus the English who various forms of the statement, “May I please, if it doesn’t at all inconvenience you, have a small cup of coffee when you have a minute?”

Cross-cultural leaders must learn how to navigate these differences in a work environment, which can be a tricky endeavor. This is especially true if you work with a multi-cultural team, as many of you do. 

The ability to give feedback appropriately. 

Providing feedback is an essential skill every leader needs. Depending on your personality, it may be difficult to give feedback in your own culture, let alone in someone else’s. What feels like constructive feedback to one person, might be destructive feedback to someone else. 

Good feedback is essential for constant improvement and a work environment that doesn’t have good feedback can turn toxic quickly.   

How do we give negative feedback across cultures? 

If you are living in a direct feedback culture, learn to give feedback in the same way. 

When I stopped “being too polite,” particularly around other men, I found I was better understood by my Mongolian peers. The first time I walked into a cafe and said, “Coffee, give” my American sensibilities were worried about seeming rude. But I wasn’t rude. That culture appreciates directness. From that point I started being direct with my feedback for my staff. It was well-received. 

Of course, uncaring negative feedback will be ill-received in any culture. People must know and feel cared for, even if they are Dutch (one of the most direct cultures on earth). Adapt your feedback style, even if it feels awkward to you. 

Adapting your feedback style for direct cultures means sitting with some discomfort and moving forward, anyway. 

Adapting your feedback style for indirect cultures is tricky and, if done poorly, can shipwreck a friendship.  

Rule number one for cross-cultural leadership is to always be a learner.

Never assume you understand the detail and nuance of a culture that is not yours. One of the biggest mistakes I witnessed in my time living cross-culturally were expatriates making cultural assumptions that were only partially true. Culture is not simple. Never assume “you got this.” There’s always more to learn. 

Feedback is an area where cultural assumptions can be relationally ruinous. In some cultures, feedback should always involve a third party to avoid direct confrontation, while in others, being indirect will cause the loss of respect and influence. 

There is nuance for giving feedback in every society that you’ll have to learn while living there. But here are some things you can try, if you need to give feedback in a less direct environment. In fact, these tools will work anywhere, anytime a hard conversation is on your docket. 

1. Food Buffer

This is one of the simplest ways to build relational capital and community anywhere in the world. Have a meal together. There’s something universally human about a shared dish and drink. Meals with my staff were a key factor to building a great team. We did local food. We did American food. Sometimes we did food from other ethnicities (Indian, Chinese, and an occasional Taco Tuesday). Food provides a natural buffer for negative feedback that will make it much easier to receive. 

When you need to have a tough conversation, don’t have a meeting. Have lunch. 

2. Time Buffer

In the West, we give feedback right here, right now, all at once. 

“Pull off the Band-Aid”, if you will. 

Get it over with and move on. 

Relationships are more complicated in other parts of the world. Sometimes it’s essential to have a time buffer. Give feedback gradually. With intention, make reference to the change that needs to happen. Then circle back. Continue doing so until the picture is clear for everyone. 

In indirect cultures, this will get meaningful results and build trust and respect in relationships. Time buffers might frustrate those who are culturally used to more direct communication. But sometimes time (and patience!) is what it takes to get results while prioritizing relationships. 

3. Do an LCS

In my work as a Growability® Consultant, I frequently give the following training to my clients. The traditional compliment sandwich when giving feedback is out of style. I’m not a fan. We’ve probably all done it in our lives: give negative feedback in the middle of two complimentary positive things.  This might work in some circumstances — but it feels disingenuous. 

Trade your compliment BLT for a feedback LCS: Likes, concerns, suggestions

Likes: Tell the person what you genuinely like about their work. There’s always something to like! This gives positivity to the project and validates their work.  Even if the “like” is about ingenuity or hustle, it’s enough validation to continue.

Concerns: Now give the negative feedback framed in “these are the things I’m concerned about.” This takes your feedback outside the realm of anything personal or opinionated. “Here are my genuine concerns” feels a lot better than “Here are the things I think are bad.”  

Suggestions: This is providing real feedback. Instead of this, try this. 

Perhaps you should talk to this person. 

Look at this problem from another perspective. 

Feedback is always about making something better. Using the LCS approach to feedback helps the person on the receiving end feel that this is true.  

Try using the “likes, concerns, suggestions” framework next time someone asks for feedback. It’s honest, helpful, and direct, while providing a buffer of encouragement.  

Finally, this point is best reiterated in James 4:8: 

Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.

People know it when you genuinely love them. Make sure they know you care. Lead by loving well. 

Want to think productively and act consistently with your beliefs? This bundle includes two workshops: Sin and Resiliency in the First Term and Sin and Resiliency for the Long Haul

Why do we talk about this? Because Jesus LOVES you and wants you to have tools for this part of you life! Get either one or the bundle here.

Photo by Ariv Kurniawan on Unsplash

Bernie Anderson

Empowering next-generation leaders, business and non-profit consultant, writer, and speaker.




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