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David Livermore

Blog, CQ in Organizations, Global Leadership

How to give culturally intelligent feedback

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Giving and receiving feedback is difficult. None of us enjoy being criticized and no matter how positively it’s framed, constructive feedback makes most people feel defensive. When we add differences in culture, race, power dynamics, and gender, we take an already difficult task and make it inordinately more sensitive and challenging. 

Let’s take European work culture as an example, where the norm is to confront challenges directly. Leaders are unlikely to address a sensitive topic by starting with what they liked or soften the critique with what communication experts call downgraders (e.g., “We aren’t quite there yet,” or “This is just my opinion”). Feedback is given explicitly. “This is unacceptable.” Not only does this direct approach create friction with Americans, it can be debilitating to employees from saving face cultures like the Philippines or Thailand.

On the other hand, Europeans describe the confusion that ensues when US leaders are overly positive when giving constructive feedback. European employees assume the positive tone means the boss is happy with their performance only to be confused when the conversation suddenly pivots toward areas of concern. Others question the sincerity of a leader who uses words like “love” or “amazing” to describe something work-related.

If all that isn’t enough, a Black employee in a mostly white organization may rightfully question whether they’re receiving more harsh feedback than their white colleague. And a gay team member may wonder if their boss’s conservative worldview is biasing how they evaluate them.

Many of the general guidelines for how to give effective feedback apply, regardless of the cultural dynamics:

  • Build a relationship of trust and support, long before you start giving feedback
  • Plan the conversation—don’t wing it
  • Give the feedback privately
  • Aim for both clarity and care

But then what? What are some of the ways that cultural intelligence will enhance the conversation when giving feedback to people with different backgrounds and identities?

1. Check your Bias

I often ask leaders to list the characteristics of employees that are easiest to manage; then I ask them to list characteristics of those most difficult to manage. The easy to manage list is usually filled with characteristics of people like themselves. Before we confront an employee, we need to consider whether the issue might in part be a difference in style and preference. Ensure that the issue you plan to confront is objectively an issue of performance.  

I’m biased toward viewing people who organize and plan ahead as being more disciplined and on top of things. In reality, some of my best colleagues and team members have been procrastinators. I’ve learned to slow down my impulse to assume that procrastination is something that needs to be corrected.

There are many other examples of how bias affects our discernment when preparing to give feedback:

  • What “makes sense” to me, may not make sense to you.
  • What you think is clear, may be confusing to me.
  • My definition of professional behavior may be contrary to what you’ve observed and learned.

The first step in giving culturally intelligent feedback is evaluating whether the issue we’re confronting is rooted in our biases—whether they be race-related, ideologically oriented, stylistic, or any other number of biases.

2. Build a psychologically safe relationship

For most of the world, failure is rooted in shame. It’s avoided at all costs to ensure one doesn’t embarrass themselves, their family, community, and co-workers. Yet research repeatedly points to the value of risk taking and allowing for failure to support innovative breakthroughs, hence all the recent emphasis on psychological safety. If people from different backgrounds are repeatedly struggling with “performance issues,” we need to consider whether the work environment is playing a role.

Culturally intelligent feedback begins long before the actual feedback discussion. It starts with the relationship and culture the leader has developed. When leaders repeatedly reinforce a work environment where everyone on the team can experiment, fail, and grow, team members will be much more open to constructive feedback. This requires making ongoing communication about what is and isn’t working as a normative part of how a team works. Even still, constructive feedback is a bigger challenge to some than others—either because they’re more sensitive as a person or because they’ve been brought up to avoid failure. But over time, the socialization of a work culture where feedback is “normal” makes a difference, particularly when it’s clear that these norms apply to everyone. As I’ve written previously, the ideal team environment combines psychological safety—when people feel safe to be themselves, share their ideas, and take risks, with intellectual honesty—when people are willing to express dissonant ideas and constructively challenge each other. Culturally intelligent feedback begins long before the actual feedback discussion.

3. Adjust your communication style

When the difficult conversation occurs, we have to be clear in our own minds about the message we intend to communicate and then figure out what communication style will most effectively convey that. I grow tired of hearing leaders say, “Sorry—I’m just very direct.” That’s no excuse. It’s on you to adjust your communication style to ensure the individuals you lead can hear it without unnecessary dissonance from the style and approach. The same needs to be said to people who prefer a more positive, diplomatic communication style. If the individual receiving feedback hasn’t understood what is being said, it’s on the leader to adapt the way they communicate to ensure clarity.

Former Google executive Kim Scott popularized the term “radical candor.” She argues that even “obnoxiously aggressive” feedback is better than “ruinous empathy” where you might withhold feedback that might otherwise be helpful. I like Scott’s work and she offers some useful insights on how to adjust her approach based on cultural differences. But the whole idea of “radical candor” favors a Western, direct approach to communication. Most of the world communicates more indirectly. Indirect communication is not by default passive aggressive or dishonest. It’s simply a different way of communicating the same message.

When giving feedback to an indirect communicator, instead of saying, “This needs to change..” try, “It would be better if….” Or instead of talking about an employee’s deficiencies, describe the situation and the modifications they could make to improve future outcomes. When an indirect communicator responds by saying, “Let me think about that,” they are quite likely telling you they don’t agree. You might think, then why didn’t they just say that? In their mind, they did just say that! You just missed it. 

One of the benefits of becoming a culturally intelligent leader is you become much more adept at accurately understanding what people are communicating. These communication differences exist even among people from the same cultural backgrounds. The leader who learns to understand and speak indirectly has developed a true art. You need skill, nuance, and sophistication to use something other than the blunt edge to speak to and understand others. 

4. Beware of the power dynamics

A great deal of what I read about giving feedback ignores power dynamics. We might assume the leader is always the one with more power but not necessarily. If you’re the only Black manager in a mostly white organization, you may have to consider how much power you actually have when giving constructive feedback to a white team member.  They may be well connected with other people in power at the organization and may feel confident to challenge your feedback in a way that someone without connections to the good old Boys club would. In many companies, negative performance reviews given by Black supervisors are more often escalated to HR for an investigation than when the same kind of review is given by white supervisors.

Senior leaders and members of the old boys network allow themselves to be more direct and confrontational with others because there’s less risk involved.  It’s much easier to provide feedback when you have more power, which may come from your title or may come from your connections with people in power or your longevity with the organization. Leaders with less privilege and status are at a disadvantage for giving and receiving feedback. Stop to consider who holds the power and how that will shape the way difficult feedback is given and received.

5. Beware of microaggressions when you’re nervous

Microaggressions, the subtle, often unintentional remarks or behaviors that communicate negative messages toward marginalized individuals, are something we’re especially susceptible to when providing difficult feedback. We may feel nervous about how the individual is going to receive our comments and in some ways, the more conscious we are of inequities and discrimination, the more paranoid it might make us. This might lead you to nervously say something like, “I don’t want people to think I’m giving you a pass because of your disability” or “Given how young you look, I think you’re more susceptible to…” 

Instead, focus on objective criteria and specific behaviors. If you genuinely want to affirm a Black team member’s strong communication skills but want to avoid using a microaggression like, “You’re very articulate” (which comes off as “You speak well for a Black person”), be specific. Describe examples of their verbal communication that are exceptional and the same goes for any employee, but particularly those from marginalized groups. Write down specifics ahead of time so that you can explicitly address issues without making vague, generalized statements that may be construed as a negative reference to the employee’s identity or background. Feedback discussions can involve a lot of emotions and in the midst of feeling nervous or defensive, it’s easy to default to a microaggression if we haven’t prepared with concrete examples and descriptions to support the topics of discussion.

6. Check for understanding

Anytime we provide constructive feedback, it’s beneficial to ensure there is a mutual understanding of what was discussed and the ways to move ahead. But as is almost always the case, this requires an extra level of effort when providing feedback to someone with a different background than you.

“Yes” may simply mean, “This is uncomfortable. If I say ‘yes’, maybe we can just wrap this up.” Ask the team member to paraphrase their understanding of the conversation and next steps. If it’s been a particularly sensitive discussion, it may be useful to give them a few days and then reconnect to discuss their understanding of the feedback as well as any follow-up questions or concerns. You might ask the individual to summarize in writing what they heard and what they see as the way forward. Some individuals will feel uncomfortable putting it in writing but you have to find ways to evaluate whether there is alignment in what was discussed beyond just getting them to sign a document that you’ve written.

Feedback is a challenging but essential part of effective leadership. Cultural intelligence, and in particular, CQ Strategy, the capability to plan and execute appropriate actions when interacting with individuals or groups from different cultures, is a critical part of translating our understanding about different cultures and backgrounds into a constructive feedback conversation. I don’t think giving feedback to individuals from different backgrounds and identities ever becomes easy. But with practice and intention, it becomes easier, and cultural intelligence provides a roadmap for getting there. 

*These kinds of practical leadership issues are included in the updated edition of Leading with Cultural Intelligence, releasing in September.