Giving Feedback Across Cultures


We all have challenges communicating with colleagues. Even the most seasoned employee can fail to convey a point or can misconstrue a meaning. Sometimes it appears that a person is being brusque – or even aggressive – when they’re trying to make a point or deliver feedback. It’s often difficult for those involved to see that the problem stems not from a negative personality trait, but rather from the speaker’s communication style.

Those who communicate in a direct and low-context manner often come off as insensitive to those with indirect and high-context communication styles. In addition, those who are doing oriented may appear pushy to those who are being oriented, that is, those who prefer making personal connections and building relationships before getting down to work. When there’s a gap in two people’s communication style preferences, it can lead to hurt feelings and bad outcomes. Understanding the gap and style switching to work around it can prevent this, especially during difficult conversations, such as those in feedback sessions.

Take this scenario as an example.  

Kees van Groet, a Dutch supervisor, met with Sayeed Al-Kathani, a Saudi Arabian employee, to provide feedback on his performance at work. “As you know, you’re strong in most areas,” said Kees. “However, there are a couple of areas where you could improve. One is in report writing, which isn’t easy for you, is it?”

Sayeed looked down and said, “I see.”

Kees continued, “Otherwise, there are no serious problems, and, in general, you are doing a fine job.”

“I’m very sorry to disappoint you, sir,” said Sayeed without making eye contact.

“You just have a little work to do,” said Kees before opening the door for Sayeed to leave.

Kees believed the session went well. He had been sure to sandwich his negative feedback in between two positive points, and felt his feedback provided Sayeed with a starting point for improvement.

Kees displayed his doing and direct preferences in the conversation, and his low-context orientation in his disregard of Sayeed’s non-verbal cues. Kees’ preferences are typical of the norms in the Dutch business sphere. Meanwhile, Sayeed, as is common for Saudi Arabians, has a less direct style, and would have preferred for the conversation to have lasted longer and been more personal instead of performance-focused. He came away from the meeting feeling that he had been deeply criticized.  

While gaps like the one that occurred in the scenario above will probably not derail the goals of a company, they can lead to lower morale and less-effective work among employees. If Kees had been able to spot the preference gap – by understanding his own communication preferences and those of Sayeed – he could have provided his feedback in a more indirect and being-oriented fashion, and he would have noticed the non-verbal cues that Sayeed was sending him during the conversation. This way, he would have been able to get his point across without alienating Sayeed.

Preference gaps don’t have to get in the way of effective communication. But it takes cultural competence to spot them and to style switch around them. This way all conversations – especially difficult ones, such as feedback sessions – can be the most successful.