Americans are known around the world for being blunt, transparent communicators, but when it comes to giving feedback in the office, this isn’t always the case.
According to cross-cultural management expert Erin Meyer, Americans are so overwhelmingly positive when they talk to others in the workplace that it can be hard for people from other countries to figure out when they’re being criticised and when they’re being complimented.
Meyer says Americans give the strongest, most explicit positive feedback of any country in the world, and tend not to criticise their coworkers or employees unless they have first gone out of their way to compliment them several times beforehand.
As a result, people who come from countries where compliments are given infrequently, as they are in France, can sometimes completely miss when a boss has criticised them because the three compliments that came first are what stand out from the meeting.
“We use words like ‘fabulous,’ ‘fantastic,’ and ‘awesome’ very freely,” Meyer, an American professor who works in France at the international business school INSEAD, tells Business Insider. “But in France, no news is good news, and only when there is negative feedback do people feel like they need to hear it.”
Meyer attributes America’s culture of over-the-top encouragement to two things: the nation’s pioneer history and its public school system.
In her book, “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business,” Meyer explains that the first Europeans who came to what is now the United States often fled formal hierarchical structures to do so. As a result, these people came to value individualism, speed, and the willingness to take risks.
But in order to take those risks, she says, people first need to have confidence in themselves and the belief that even if they stumble, things will ultimately be ok.
As a result, American schools have for years worked to build children’s confidence with gold stars and positive reinforcement.
In fact, Meyer says the trend of in-school encouragement is only increasing in the US, with younger generations getting more positive feedback than their parents did when they were in school.
As an example, she mentions what one of her students told her about the performance review process at a well-known Silicon Valley company.
According to Meyer, managers at the company are given a template that asks them to list three things the employee does really, really well. Then, managers are given just one box to explain what the employee should be doing differently.
But while she says that US millennials are correctly type-casted as needing and expecting explicit, positive feedback, this isn’t the case with young people all over the world.
Still, she says there is no good or bad cultural approach to giving praise and criticism in the workplace. Instead, what’s most important is to be aware of the differences that could obscure the message you are trying to communicate.
“What’s critical today for anyone working in this global economy is to recognise that what is constructive feedback in one culture may be considered unconstructive in another culture, and what’s considered polite in one culture might be considered rude in another,” Meyer says. “I just think that we need to be flexible.”
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