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Leading a Global Team? The Cultural Implications of Giving Direct vs Indirect Feedback

Posted on October 01, 2013 by: Lisa Koss

It’s amazing how many global leaders still use the “sandwich approach” to give feedback, which is the classic Western strategy of stacking your sentences like a sandwich:  saying something positive about that person’s performance, put on the hard feedback, and then top it with something positive again.

This technique is especially popular with global leaders who are unsure of the reaction to “bad news”, especially prevalent when working with someone lesser-known.  I see it so often when working with leaders who operate across cultures.  The leader’s rationale is that they are “cushioning the blow” and hedging against a souring of the relationship.  However, these sorts of formulaic antidotes mostly ease a leader’s unease for her/himself, not the listener.

The problem with giving feedback in this way is that it confuses.  For the direct communicator, the technique ensures extra anxiety.  The person probably knows the technique and is simply waiting for the other shoe to drop.  The positive messages you’ve included are not even heard.  At worst, the technique feels like manipulation.

For the indirect communicator (most of the world), your message may be understood in a myriad of ways, and you’ll never know in exactly which way.  The problem here is that the listener is interpreting with their own cultural frame of reference and this frame will be different than yours.  Tone of voice and body language play a big role in the message, but as the consultant who regularly talks to both parties in these scenarios, what message is sent and received are often widely different.

So what is the global leader to do?  Is it possible to take an individual approach to each person who receives your feedback?  Is it practical to ask each colleague around the world about their preferences in receiving messages?

The answer is two-fold:  an individual approach whenever possible, and the reverse of the “sandwich approach” whenever in doubt.

For communication with those who you interact most regularly, compare your own preferences and expectations with others in regard to how/when communication happens, how decisions are made, and how conflicts are resolved. This can save you loads of time in the long run in saved productivity.  Studies show that the team leader who moves back and forth between “process” and “task” are most successful.  Experiment how guesswork and anxiety go down and how relationships improve when you have a psychological agreement with others on how to work together.

For when it is not possible to take an individual approach, I suggest the following instead of using “the sandwich approach”:

  • Give your acknowledgments separately from your critique – at an entirely different moment
  • If you must deliver both messages in one moment, start with the hard feedback first and discuss.  Then, end the conversation by mentioning what you think is working well and any other acknowledgments that will be both meaningful to them and true for you.

A few more tips on this topic from Harvard Business Review’s Management Tip of the Day:  http://links.mkt3142.com/servlet/MailView?ms=Njk5MDU4NwS2&r=Mzc4OTc1NTA1S0&j=ODkwNTE4NTgS1&mt=1&rt=0

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