How to Effectively Give Feedback in Cross-Cultural Situations in Japan

One of the challenges GLOBIS MBA graduates face can be working in a cross-cultural environment in Japan. GLOBIS Insights interviewed Japanese and Non-Japanese about the challenges they face in communicating and working with each other. Then, to discuss possible solutions, we sat down with three faculty who teach Cross-Cultural Management: Suzanne Price, Cristian Vlad, and Megumi Taoka. Here is the result: three articles, the first of which is about how to give feedback in a cross-cultural setting.

The Problem: How to Give and Receive Feedback Effectively

Working in a mixed team of Non-Japanese and Japanese can be stressful! We often want to make “suggestions” to our colleagues. How do we do it without upsetting the other person, especially if it is “negative feedback”?

Some Non-Japanese we interviewed said that they didn’t know how direct they should be in giving feedback to Japanese: if the comment is too direct, it is offensive. If it is too indirect, or too soft, it is not taken seriously. In response, Japanese said they felt uncomfortable receiving feedback that was “too direct.”

On the other hand, Non-Japanese weren’t sure how to persuade Japanese to give them feedback, especially if the Japanese were subordinates. One Canadian who runs his own company said, "I don't know what they are thinking.” Another woman from Southeast Asia said, “If I don't receive any feedback, I don't know if I am doing a good job or not. I don't feel included in the team.” Sure enough, the Japanese we interviewed weren’t sure how to give feedback that was "comfortable" for Non-Japanese.

We took these issues and asked for feedback from our GLOBIS Faculty.

Why this is Challenging

Megumi Taoka: One thing I want to cover is for Japanese people not being able to give negative feedback. I mean, we can give feedback on “things”: like “this is a bad shape” or “the color is horrible.” We can say that, but we cannot say it about people. We just want to keep it to ourselves. How can we make it so Japanese people feel safe to give negative feedback?

Suzanne Price: This is deeply connected to the values many Asian cultures share around losing face and saving face. From a psychological point of view, I connect this with fear of shame. On the other hand, the opposite of shame is “grandiosity.” Some cultures such as the U.S. are somewhat self-promotional. Someone from the U.S. could say something a little grandiose, and someone from a culture that values modesty could respond, “Oh, gosh that’s so embarrassing. How could you say those things?” Shame and modesty are all connected with, “I don't want to shame myself, embarrass myself, or embarrass you.” That's the fundamental mechanism. Humans are terrified of shame. There's an anxiety or fear of it when giving negative feedback: “I'm not very skilled at feedback because I haven't seen other people do it,” and “I don't really know how to do it. I'm afraid I might offend you. We will lose our harmony, and then we won’t be able to work together.” There's a lot of that going on.

Solutions

Cris Vlad: So, the question is, “How do we make it safe for people to give feedback?”

Suzanne Price: First, we need to help people realize why feedback is important: “If I don't give you feedback, you can't grow and do their best work. Actually, I've done you and maybe the organization, my team, a disservice." This frees people up. We need to keep reminding them that it really is safe to say these things and give feedback.

Cris Vlad: Often I hear foreigners in leadership roles ask their Japanese colleagues working for them, “Do you have feedback for me?” Japanese respond, “Oh. That’s really embarrassing. How could you ask that? You’re the boss.”

Suzanne Price: Again, I think there’s some fear, discomfort and shame going on. Every culture needs to learn the skills to have these conversations in a non-judgmental way. “I still value you as a person and care about your confidence and your dignity. I'm really partnering with you to help you to do a better job. You will feel better if you do a better job as well.”

Megumi Taoka: I think many Asian and African nationals tend to take feedback very personally, whether positive or negative. In these cases, they are afraid of feedback, both the giving and the receiving. But in fact, having feedback is intended to simply be a process for continual improvement. Feedback should be directed towards actions and behavior, not towards a person or character. (“Attack the problem, not the person.”) Cultures that welcome direct negative feedback such as German and Dutch seem to appreciate the intrinsic purpose and value of feedback. All of us need to find a way to de-personalize the act of feedback and gain more out of it.

Cris Vlad: Perhaps managers can lead by example by giving positive feedback themselves. They can also mention previous experiences of feedback: “In a previous job, I gave my boss this feedback, and this was the great result that we got because of that.” “One of my team members gave me feedback and this made a massive difference for me; it saved me from making some silly decision or generating tons of unnecessary work for us. That's why this process is very important.”

Suzanne Price: Another solution is to foster a corporate culture where giving and receiving feedback is not only safe, it’s expected. Whenever people are shown a pattern a couple of times and realize it's safe, they will free themselves up to continue it. In companies like Goldman Sachs where they expect this process, Japanese will give feedback to their senior leaders because they understand “that's what we do around here and it's expected and it's safe to do so.” It's about creating a culture which says feedback is okay: showing you're not going to get your head bitten off for this, that feedback really is helpful. Then, gradually reinforcing the behavior that “feedback is what we do.”

Megumi Taoka: What about putting the feedback in writing? “I’m giving this feedback because I’d like you to grow. We can grow together and thank you for reading.” I think having a form really makes us Japanese people feel it’s safe. Given our hierarchical thinking, we feel comfortable following rules and processes set by the authority, which having it in writing implies. We say, “This is okay, if it is what the company wants,” and can more readily open up without worrying as much about the consequences. If the form explains the context behind why we are giving this feedback, we feel safer, too. With this particular context in mind, we can take time to contemplate writing our own “appropriate” responses while considering the receiver or giver of the feedback. This kind of deliberate writing process can satisfy our well-known tendency to avoid risk.

Suzanne Price: Won't they worry about confidentiality if they put it in a form?

Megumi Taoka: We can add the line, “This is confidential.”

Suzanne Price: Another way could be to include this form as part of 360 degree feedback. A lot of companies put 360-feedback mechanisms into their Performance Management System. When I’m coaching leaders in organizations, I gather feedback from people around them via interviews. I then give feedback to the leaders by discussing the themes that came up from different people in the feedback. I do not mention who said what. This system provides the anonymity necessary to feel safe giving honest tough, constructive feedback.

Megumi Taoka: One final, practical hint is to pay attention to the type of language used for giving negative feedback. Prof. Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map, recommends adjusting the tone of the message by using “upgraders” (for emphasis) or “downgraders” (for softness) to match to the preferred directness in a particular culture. (For details, see: How To Say “This Is Crap” In Different Cultures)

Wrap-up

In conclusion, we can see these solutions to create a safe space for giving and receiving feedback:

・Explain why feedback is essential for each other’s growth
・Lead by example and mention previous experiences of feedback
・Foster a corporate culture where feedback feels safe, such as a system of written feedback
・On an organizational level, install 360 feedback mechanism into the Performance Management System
・Pay attention to the type and tone of language in order to match the directness level of the particular culture receiving the feedback.

Check out the GLOBIS Seminar on "Influence with Cultural Intelligence" on May 26 in Tokyo!

In 2015 and 2016, Suzanne Price was honored to be listed as ‘Top 10 Diversity Consultants’ by The Global Diversity List supported by the Economist. She was also the British Business Award ‘Entrepreneur of the Year, 2012’ as the President of Price Global, a change agent specializing in Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) for Asia Pacific and based in Tokyo. Suzanne is particularly known for expertise facilitating organisations and managers to build inclusive work environments mitigating unconscious bias. She is also a pioneer with 12-years experience designing and delivering Leadership Development Programs for Women in Asia Pacific.

Suzanne works as a consultant, facilitator and executive coach. Her clients include numerous Fortune 500 and multi-national companies across a broad range of industries throughout Asia Pacific. Suzanne previously led D&I at UBS Securities Asia and has served as a retained consultant for Global Leadership and Diversity at Goldman Sachs and Diversity and Inclusion advisor for AXA Life. She is also an associate Consultant for Korn Ferry’s D&I Leadership and Talent Consulting Services. Suzanne is a qualified applied psychology professional having transitioned from a previous career as a psychotherapist. She has proven business acumen, and provides tangible business results to her clients. Her clients have won several awards for her programs.

A seasoned veteran of business transformation, organizational development and innovation initiatives, both in terms of product and organizational innovation, Cristian Vlad is the President and CEO of JCE Japan Creative Enterprise, a young and dynamic agency which helps corporate teams transform their business and manage their talent. Cristian has been advising global clients on the role of diversity, human capital, creativity and corporate communications as strategic business drivers to foster innovation and stimulate business growth. He has been recognized by both multinational corporations and emerging enterprises as a thought leader in the areas of business strategy, relationship management, organizational development and architecture, leadership, social media, collaborative environments, people operations, transformation and business model innovation. In parallel, Cristian is an IBM Global Business Services consultant, advising corporate clients on Talent and Organizational Transformation projects.

Prior to his current role, Cristian was project manager at Toyota Motor Corporation, where he led a team of advanced product development professionals within the Corporate Value Creation Department. He also consulted on numerous organizational changes, corporate rebranding and transformation projects globally, in a wide rage of industries. Cristian holds an MA in International Relations from Hirosaki University and a dual BA in Communications and Foreign Language Education from the University of Bucharest.

Cristian currently resides in Fukuoka, Hong Kong and San Francisco.

Megumi Taoka has extensive experience in financial reporting for global companies in London, New York and Tokyo. At GLOBIS, she teaches Cross-cultural Management, Power and Influence, and Financial Accounting. Her industry expertise ranges from fashion and entertainment to recruiting and human capital. Her recent research is comparative studies of ethics and morals across cultures. Ms. Taoka earned her MBA from the University of Tsukuba.

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