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Global Japan
MAY 12, 2017

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

By GLOBIS Insights Staff, With Suzanne Price, Cristian Vlad, Megumi Taoka

Working in a team of mixed cultures can be stressful. We often want to make suggestions to our colleagues, but how do we do that without upsetting the other person, especially if it’s negative feedback? Being too direct might come off as offensive, but being too indirect or soft may result in the comment not being taken seriously.

Many Japanese people say they feel uncomfortable receiving direct feedback from foreign coworkers. They also aren’t sure how to give feedback.

In turn, those foreign coworkers often aren’t sure how to persuade their Japanese colleagues (especially subordinates) to give them feedback. To foreigners working in Japan, feedback (even negative) is helpful – it makes them feel like they understand what their Japanese counterparts are thinking, whether they themselves are doing a good job. It also confirms that they are included in the team.

Clearly, this disconnect can lead to a breakdown in team synergy. We interviewed Japanese and non-Japanese faculty Suzanne Price, Cristian Vlad, and Megumi Taoka about how to overcome such challenges.

Megumi Taoka: I’d like to clarify the issue of Japanese people not being able to give negative feedback. We can give feedback on “things.” For example, “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. So the question is, 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. That anxiety or fear comes out when giving negative feedback: “I’m not very skilled at feedback because I haven’t seen other people do it,” or “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.

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. They need to understand, “If I don’t give you feedback, you can’t grow and do your best work. That would mean I’ve done you and 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. That is, attack the problem, not the person.

Cultures that welcome direct negative feedback, such as the Germans 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 from it.

Cris Vlad: Perhaps managers can lead by example by giving positive feedback themselves. They can also mention their own experiences, like “In a previous job, I gave my boss this feedback, and this was the great result that we got because of that.” or “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, but 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 employees will give feedback to their senior leaders because they understand “that’s what we do around here. It’s expected, and it’s safe.”

It’s about creating a culture which says feedback is okay: you’re not going to get your head bitten off. Feedback really is helpful. Then, gradually reinforcing the understanding 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. It’s okay if it’s what the company wants, so we 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 responses while considering the receiver or giver of the feedback. This kind of deliberate writing process can satisfy the well-known Japanese inclination to avoid risk.

Suzanne Price: That kind of form could be part of 360 degree feedback. A lot of companies put 360-feedback mechanisms into their performance management systems. When I’m coaching leaders in organizations, I gather feedback from people via interviews. I then give feedback to the leaders by discussing the themes that came up. 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 in 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.

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These solutions could help create a safe space for giving and receiving feedback:

・Explain why feedback is essential for everyone’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 a 360-feedback mechanism into the performance management system. 
・Pay attention to language and tone in order to match the directness of the particular culture receiving the feedback.