When positive feedback misses the mark

Throughout my professional life I’ve had the opportunity to work in all four quadrants of the U.S.-German business world. I once was an employee at German companies in Germany, worked for a U.S. business in Deutschland, freelanced in the U.S. for a German company, and joined the team of an American company in the U.S.

thumbsupIt wasn’t until my time in the U.S./U.S. quadrant that I understood the principles of American-style performance review and feedback. Or, rather, the perceived absence of critical responses. Having grown up in a small business owner family in Bavaria and having experienced the German corporate world, I was relying on no-holds-barred honest assessments of my work behaviors. My fellow German readers probably heard this before: “Nicht geschimpft, ist Lob genug.” (“The absence of scolding is plenty of praise”)

SandwichFeedback2Different cultures employ different modes of praise. I’ve written about this before – here on this blog, and over at Harvard Business Review (together with my friend Andy Molinsky). Recently I found another great article about the unique feedback-style in U.S.-American work culture. In his Business Insider story, “Why American Bosses Give More Positive Feedback Than Anyone Else In The World,” Aaron Taube looks at how Americans, while being known as blunt communicators, can be overwhelmingly positive when they talk to others in the workplace. For people from other cultures this can sometimes be rather misleading. In my case this meant that the sandwich feedback my U.S. boss gave me completely missed its goal. All the praise I received in the beginning, the end, and even throughout our conversation hid most of the criticism she wanted to present to me. In fact, I felt exhilarated when I left her office. Not sure how she felt.

The BI article refers to Erin Meyer’s book “The Culture Map” in which she attributes America’s culture of over-the-top encouragement to two things: the nation’s pioneer history and its public school system. Both of these factors have been favoring individuals who are comfortable with taking risks – Individualism and Uncertainty Avoidance are, in fact, two of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions (more here). That’s why knowing how to give proper and effective feedback in different cultural contexts is critical for global leaders who want to be successful. Or, as Erin Meyer puts it:

“What’s critical today for anyone working in this global economy is to recognize 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.” (full article here)


ch (April'14).2Christian is a cultural trainer, coach, and consultant with extensive experience in working with multinational companies and especially in developing global leaders. He is the President and CEO of The Culture Mastery, LLC, where he leads a team of dedicated training, destination services, and expat support specialists. Christian works with global organizations (or those who are going global) to help their employees overcome cultural differences. Typically he only uses the word “normal” in quotation marks and he is an advocate for helping people understand the why of behaviors – not just the dos & don’ts. Most just call him “The Culture Guy”. Find out more about Christian here and follow him on Twitter. You can also see him, listen to him, and experience his work – just invite him!



3 thoughts on “When positive feedback misses the mark

  1. My child’s parent/teacher conference…German Grunschule teacher laid out all the things my daughter needs to work on. At some point I thought…does she even like my kid? Me as a teacher at a parent/teacher conference…Start with praise, then discuss what the child needs to work on.

    So the German parents don’t see the nuance, they hear the praise and don’t hear the critique. The American parent appreciates the positives, but also takes the critique to heart. And it gets way more complex with my Japanese and Korean parents.

    But I have also been in situations where the German parent did not like my directness. He wanted me to be more American.

    I am so glad to have found you and Erin Meyer. It has made me change how I respond to my students and parents for the better.

  2. Pingback: How coaching across cultures isn’t your typical corporate leadership development program | Southeast Schnitzel

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