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The Impact Of Culture On Feedback – How To Provide Feedback Across Cultures

Written by: Adelina Stefan, Senior Level Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Feedback is a powerful means of communication regarding aspects of one's performance or understanding, letting the other know what they have done well and what they may miss important, so that they can reproduce the behavior to reach certain standards.

Feedback is essential for detecting blind spots and possibilities for further development. There are several related concepts such as criticism, performance appraisal, evaluation or instruction. As a difference to criticism which always includes a negative connotation, as the word already embodies, feedback can consist also purely of positive aspects such as encouragement or praise.

Expressing feedback is by nature evaluative and feelings can be easily affected. Think of feedback as a strategy to inform people how effective they are in what they are trying to accomplish and how this may impact you. We all know how you say something can have a real impact even more than the words you choose to use. People may perceive feedback as critique and act defensively; they are hearing through their own filters. What we say may not be what the other people hear. Therefore, it is crucial to address every feedback in a polite and constructive form. We need to be mindful of the way we say things and communicate transparently to ensure that recipients understand the real message that is being conveyed.

Culture as a predictor of feedback style

Culture has as many other personal or group characteristics, an important impact on the communication style. The concept of culture has been defined in cross-cultural research in various ways, as a set of values and beliefs reflected in various cultural dimensions that facilitate human interactions in daily life activities. One of the most popular definition represents Hofstede’s (1980) description of culture as individuals’ “software of the mind” and “collective mental processing” in a specific country, which inspired the study of a wide range of topics including: leadership, conflict management, cultural diversity and team management perception of trust and communication in the workplace.

It is not possible to talk about culture without generalising about the cultural characteristics of nationalities, as we are discussing the behaviour and values of groups of people, passed on at a collective level from generation to generation.

In an attempt to explore the role of cross-cultural communication in a corporate context in my research Advancing Intercultural Perspectives through Corporate Training (2018), it was demonstrated that attention should be paid to the type of feedback (i.e., negative versus positive feedback), as it can either undermine trainees’ motivation to invest in their development or increase people’s level of commitment and motivation to improve. As pointed by Rand & Huang (2017), balancing positive and negative feedback is crucial for ensuring a desirable level of self-efficacy and engagement.

How different cultures approach feedback

There are several cultural studies on feedback in different cultures. In an international context, individuals need to find proactive ways of reducing the potential for misunderstandings and dealing with them when they occur. In their politeness theory, Brown, and Levinson (1978 / 1987) classify politeness in positive, negative, and indirect politeness. In positive politeness, putting the person in the centre, showing respect and consideration, and involving small talk create a sense of warmth and closeness. By contrast, negative politeness entails respecting the other’s privacy and giving space. Indirect politeness includes strategies such as: implying, irony, generalizations, and over-emphasizing. Therefore, individuals need to choose an appropriate strategy to weigh up the seriousness of their message, considering: the power-distance between the participants, their distance-closeness, and the degree of imposition of the message transmitted.

All cultures have characteristics defining their social identity. The Lewis model explores how different cultures are programmed to view the world differently and behave in diverse ways. It posits that communication is central to getting results across cultures and analyzes different national communication styles and listening habits through diagrams which take one through the different phases of a business negotiation in different cultures

The Lewis Model (1996) describes global cross-cultural behaviour in terms of linear-active, multi-active and reactive categories.

  • Linear active (German) refers to cultures which emphasize “linear” qualities such as: punctuality, facts, planning in a straightforward manner, action, and implementation. They prefer and direct discussion, do one thing at a time take turns talking and listening; they believe in rules and regulations to guide their conduct. When doing business, they are keen on punctuality quality and reliable delivery dates. Many of these concepts are American in origin and are extensively used in Western cultures.

  • multi-active cultures (France / Greek / Italian) seen as warm, emotional, impulsive, loquacious that place emphasis on elegant discourse, theoretical models, and company’s reputation in the larger society. Conversation is animated as everyone tries to speak at the same time; not surprisingly, interruptions are frequent and pauses in conversation few. Multi-actives are uncomfortable with silence and can seldom tolerate it. Their concept of time and discourse are nonlinear, and they often struggle to understand the importance of timetables for linear-active people.

  • reactive (Japan / Chinese / Koreans) cultures courteous, amiable, accommodating, good listeners, where self-sacrifice, paternalism, and internal cooperation combine to reinforce a strict hierarchy. They exercise their ability to adapt towards linear- or multi-activity. They are considered very good listeners as they concentrate on what the speaker’s saying and rarely, if ever, interrupt. The preferred mode of communication nis monologue, pause and reflection, whereas in linear-active and multi-active, it is dialogue.

Even if in a new cultural setting it’s important to learn the cultural norms with the help of a cultural mentor or facilitator, you can never fully anticipate the norms and expectations of certain individuals and groups, or assume that by “going native”, you will communicate successfully.

The most effective way to leverage the cultural differences and handle other’s expectations is to adjust your feedback manner, address the communication norms and preference to create phycological safety and comfort between yourself and the person you are addressing. For instance, you may say:

  • What is important to you when it comes to communication about what really matters in our collaboration?

  • I would like to ensure we work well together and avoid miscommunication. Would you like to share how you most like to give and receive feedback?

  • In case there might be any differences in the way we communicate, is there anything I should know about your workstyle, preferences an expectation?

  • If we have some feedback for each other and would like to share it for us to develop and grow, how would you prefer to do that?

Considering cultural differences and designing a culturally competent model may be one effective approach delivering feedback in a global organization.

Do you have a standardised feedback model? If yes, you may want to revisit it, inspect, and adapt.

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Read more from Adelina!


Adelina Stefan, Senior Level Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine Adelina Stefan is a Professional Certified Coach & Intercultural Facilitator specialized in Career Development, with a deep expertise in international HR recruitment and selection and Training and Development. Having worked for 10+ years across cultures, Adelina seeks to catalyze individuals’ potential, helping them create and implement their unique career blueprint and, at the same time, achieve a healthy work-life balance. She specializes in working with expats and mid- to senior-level executives dealing with challenging work environments that can affect both their performance and well-being. She supports organizations in building a corporate coaching culture by highlighting individuals’ maximum potential and engagement so that they become dedicated and highly successful employees. Her practice includes Career, Life, Executive, and Agile Coaching for individuals, as well as developing and implementing corporate Human Resources practices for improving intercultural relations.


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