Feedback within Global Teams

 

 

How often are you asked by your colleagues, “Could you take a look at my presentation and tell me what you think?” This seems like a harmless task. So you take a look and say, “It looks good, maybe just change the blue border around the graph to green.”

Hmmm. What do you think has just been understood by Lila, the colleague who asked for your opinion?

a) She thinks she´s done a great job and will just change the blue border to green, or

b) She thinks you hate the whole presentation and she will be up all night to rewrite it all.

Feedback is hard enough when we are dealing with people who have a similar mindset to ours. We´re usually a little uncomfortable telling somebody that the work they have done is not quite what was expected. When we give feedback to people who were brought up in a similar environment to ours, we are usually aware of the best way to do it. We pick up on small patterns of behaviour that are are part of the culture we grow up in. As we grow up, we see, listen and copy how people act and react to what we say and how we say it; be it at school from friends and teachers and then when we join the work-force our colleagues and managers use patterns that we recognise and we copy knowing it works.

However, it is all too easy to make unknown errors working in culturally diverse teams and assuming that just because we work for the same company and are aware of the corporate culture, that we are comfortable using the same communication techniques.

If you´ve been brought up in north-western Europe where one of the most important values is often honesty and equality, then feedback can be to the point and direct. You know that the person you´re talking to will likely appreciate your honesty and not take any offence in what you say. Therefore, with our above sample, Lila will literally only go and change the blue line to a green line and then feel her presentation is complete.

However, if Lila happened to grow up in, let´s say, Far East Asia or Latin America, where generally society values relationship-building and saving Face more that telling the “absolute truth”, then she might have understood that her presentation was indeed not good at all and needed to be redone, completely. In these societies generally feedback is given in a far more indirect manner, using techniques such as not mentioning what was not done well. So the fact that the person above only mentioned the colour of the line around the graph and nothing else, could be interpreted to mean that everything that was not mentioned was not to be re-worked.

Let´s look at the above example again and see how the feedback can be treated if Lila really is from a culture where trust is created through relationship-building and face-saving is important. Ideally you create an environment where a discussion can take place rather than just give your opinion:

  1. Firstly, always give feedback one-on-one, never in public

2. Rather than give your opinion, ask the other person what they think about the work they have just done; “So Lila, how do you feel the presentation looks?

3. If Lila says she likes it, (and yet you think there are still some adjustments to be made) then perhaps ask, “If you had to give it a score from 1-10, what score would you give it?” Lila replies, “I´d give it an 8”. “So,” you reply, “how can we bring it from 8 to 9?” and that is where the feedback discussion begins.

Being culturally savvy means learning to read communication patterns that are different to the ones you were brought up with and knowing when to change your communication techniques (verbal and non-verbal) according to the cultural background of the team member you are facing. If you work in a multicultural team, that could mean either changing your communication with every person on the team or deciding with the team openly and up front which communication techniques will be used to express such thoughts. That would be creating the team culture a method of behaviour and communication that everyone on the team is happy with.

Culturally Diverse High Performing Teams

 

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Gender is one of the diversity factors of global teams; men and women do have different ways of viewing the world, of living life and of doing business in general, but it is just one of the factors. Focusing on gender difference alone does not create high-performing teams.

A 26-year-old male Brazilian software engineer who grew up on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro has a fairly different perspective of the world compared to a 55-year-old female Swiss marketing manager who grew up in the centre of Zurich. But is it’s not their gender alone that creates the filter through which they view the world. In global, project-based teams where organisations bring culturally diverse people together (virtually) so that they can gain on creativity, capitalise on less travel expenses and spend less on expatriate assignments, this culturally diverse combination is very common.

Try searching, ‘high performing teams’, and usually the results will come up with a list of attributes that includes trust, dealing with conflict, open communication, giving feedback and valuing diversity. The first item on that list needs to be valuing diversity. The way we deal with the previous listed factors differs widely whether we are in Mumbai, Frankfurt, Rio de Janeiro or Shanghai. Building trust with a Chinese colleague requires a different skill-set to building trust with a colleague from Hamburg. Giving feedback to a Brazilian requires very different competencies to giving feedback to a Swiss colleague. Only once we understand what the different cultural values of our colleagues are can be begin to value them and only then can we begin to contemplate how to build trust with them or how to deal with conflict in the team.

Let’s look at an example; we’ll take our two colleagues above, the software engineer and the marketing manager. What cultural values could these two team members have that might be causing them not to see eye to eye?

Destiny and Time

Let’s start with their relationship to destiny and time. We’ll insert the competency of giving feedback, just to give it some depth. These are components that every ‘high-performing’ team member in any project-based team is expected to deal with daily. Generally speaking a German-speaking Swiss usually feels that she or he is the master of her/his own destiny. They will wake up in the morning and plan out their day hour by hour (well actually, let’s face it, if you’ve ever worked with the Swiss, you know it’s closer to nano-minute by nano-minute planning), and ensure that they do everything possible within that day to reach the objectives they have set themselves. That means they won’t have any qualms about telling you that they can only speak to you on the phone for 11 more minutes because in 12 minutes they need to make another phone call. This same person is also not reluctant to give her boss some feedback at her upcoming performance evaluation telling him that his delegation skills are not great and that’s why she’s had a difficult year. Speaking directly and telling the truth, no matter how difficult it might be to hear, is what a German speaking Swiss generally feels is the best policy. Planning has always been an important attribute in Switzerland. A country of very little natural resources with only about ten percent of its land being arable due to all its lakes, mountains and rivers and where human capital is its prime resource, needs to plan to be able to feed its young. ‘Let’s make sure we harvest all the fruit by mid-October so that we can preserve it for the winter and continue to feed our children.’ That is what a resident of Zug would call a healthy relationship to time.

Now let’s look at our Brazilian software engineer, who generally believes that fate will ensure whether or not the ship-freighted container of goods you expect to be delivered on Thursday afternoon actually arrives then or not. Brazil is such a plentiful nation where twelve months a year you can go out and harvest fruit or find scurrying animals in the forest who can provide food. The forest doesn’t freeze over so there isn’t that much need to plan, life will work itself out. Plus let’s not forget the very unstable economy that the Brazilians have had to deal with this last century. In the 1990s they had inflation percentages of 3 to 4 digits. ‘Whatever I have in my pockets today won’t be worth anything tomorrow, so why save it, how can I possibly plan for tomorrow? I live for today and God willing, things will go well.’ A couple of years ago around a dinner table following a tedious and arduous seminar, a Brazilian colleague of mine remarked with a big smile on her face, ‘That went well, thanks be to God.’ The non-Brazilian colleague sitting with us told her quite abruptly, ‘It had nothing to do with God, we planned well.’ That did not go down very well.

‘Leave it to Batman’

Filipinos tend to use the term ‘Bahala Na’‘What will be will be’, or more traditionally, ‘Leave it to God’. Recently a Filipino in one of my workshops told me that young Filipinos today have started to give the credit to Batman, ‘Bahala na si Batman’ (leave it up to Batman). ‘Sure, Mum, I’ll be home by midnight…, if Batman wills it’.

And when it comes to giving negative feedback, well, let’s say that the Brazilians are generally far more indirect than the German-speaking Swiss at expressing negative opinions. Brazilians tend to want to save face, theirs and the people they are speaking to. Speaking indirectly keeps the harmony, the good relationship and ensures nobody is offended. That doesn’t mean they don’t give feedback, but it means you need to learn to understand it when they give it. I recollect a number of times while working in Brazil, where I had asked my team members to read over some documents to let me know if any errors had been made. Over a two-year span and many long documents, my Brazilian colleagues had not noted a single word to change. My French colleagues having read the same documents later on made a million amendments… What I hadn’t understood was the Brazilian way of giving feedback.

So what happens when a Swiss person is working on a project team with a Brazilian or a Filipino? How can they give feedback that will not be taken as face-losing criticism? How do they deal with conflict and build trust and accountability?

A Culturally Diverse High Performing Teamneeds to understand what the cultural values of its team members are and only then can each member start to see each situation through the perspective of the other team members. And only then can the team envisage creating its own ‘third culture’ or team charter to which it will function.