How To Say “This Is Crap” In Different Cultures – by Erin Meyer

It was Willem’s turn, one of the Dutch participants, who recounted an uncomfortable snafu when working with Asian clients.  “How can I fix this relationship?” Willem asked his group of international peers.

Maarten, the other Dutch participant who knew Willem well, jumped in with his perspective. “You are inflexible and can be socially ill-at-ease. That makes it difficult for you to communicate with your team,” he asserted. As Willem listened, I could see his ears turning red (with embarrassment or anger? I wasn’t sure) but that didn’t seem to bother Maarten, who calmly continued to assess Willem’s weaknesses in front of the entire group. Meanwhile, the other participants — all Americans, British and Asians — awkwardly stared at their feet.

That evening, we had a group dinner at a cozy restaurant.  Entering a little after the others, I was startled to see Willem and Maarten sitting together, eating peanuts, drinking champagne, and laughing like old friends. They waved me over, and it seemed appropriate to comment, “I’m glad to see you together. I was afraid you might not be speaking to each other after the feedback session this afternoon.”

Willem, with a look of surprise, reflected, “Of course, I didn’t enjoy hearing those things about myself. It doesn’t feel good to hear what I have done poorly. But I so much appreciated that Maarten would be transparent enough to give me that feedback honestly. Feedback like that is a gift. Thanks for that, Maarten” he added with an appreciative smile.

I thought to myself, “This Dutch culture is . . . well . . . different from my own.”

Managers in different parts of the world are conditioned to give feedback in drastically different ways. The Chinese manager learns never to criticize a colleague openly or in front of others, while the Dutch manager learns always to be honest and to give the message straight. Americans are trained to wrap positive messages around negative ones, while the French are trained to criticize passionately and provide positive feedback sparingly.

One way to begin gauging how a culture handles negative feedback is by listening to the types of words people use. More direct cultures tend to use what linguists callupgraders, words preceding or following negative feedback that make it feel stronger, such as absolutely, totally, or strongly: “This is absolutely inappropriate,” or “This istotally unprofessional.”

By contrast, more indirect cultures use more downgraders, words that soften the criticism, such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe, and slightly. Another type of downgrader is a deliberate understatement, such as “We are not quite there yet” when you really mean “This is nowhere close to complete.” The British are masters at it.  The “Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide”, which has been circulating in various versions on the Internet, illustrates the miscommunication that can result.

Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide Table

Germans are rather like the Dutch in respect of directness and interpret British understatement very similarly. Marcus Klopfer, a German client, described to me how a misunderstanding with his British boss almost cost him his job:

In Germany, we typically use strong words when complaining or criticizing in order to make sure the message registers clearly and honestly. Of course, we assume others will do the same. My British boss during a one-on-one “suggested that I think about” doing something differently. So I took his suggestion: I thought about it, and decided not to do it. Little did I know that his phrase was supposed to be interpreted as “change your behavior right away or else.” And I can tell you I was pretty surprised when my boss called me into his office to chew me out for insubordination!

I learned to ignore all of the soft words surrounding the message when listening to my British teammates. Of course, the other lesson was to consider how my British staff might interpret my messages, which I had been delivering as “purely” as possible with no softeners whatsoever. I realize now that when I give feedback in my German way, I may actually use words that make the message sound as strong as possible without thinking much about it. I’ve been surrounded by this “pure” negative feedback since I was a child.

All this can be interesting, surprising, and sometimes downright painful, when you are leading a global team: as you Skype with your employees in different cultures, your words will be magnified or minimized significantly based on your listener’s cultural context   So you have to work to understand how your own way of giving feedback is viewed in other cultures.   As Klopfer reported:

Now that I better understand these cultural tendencies, I … soften the message when working with cultures less direct than my own.  I start by sprinkling the ground with a few light positive comments and words of appreciation. Then I ease into the feedback with “a few small suggestions.” As I’m giving the feed- back, I add words like “minor” or “possibly.” Then I wrap up by stating that “This is just my opinion, for whatever it is worth,” and “You can take it or leave it.”  The elaborate dance is quite humorous from a German’s point of view … but it certainly gets [the] desired results!

What about you? Where do you think your own culture falls in this regard?   If I need to tell you your work is total crap, how would you like me to deliver the message?


Erin Meyer is a professor specializing in cross-cultural management at INSEAD, where she is the program director for two executive education programs: Managing Global Virtual Teams and Management Skills for International Business.  She is the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (PublicAffairs, June 2014).  Follow her on Twitter: @ErinMeyerINSEAD

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When Two of Your Coworkers Are Fighting – by Amy Gallo

What the Experts Say
Whether or not you get involved will depend on how enmeshed you are in the situation. If either person approaches you to complain or to enlist your help, you have to respond in some way. And while you may not be their manager, you have a responsibility to make sure work gets done. “If it’s getting in the way of teamwork, then talk to them,” says Anna Ranieri, a career counselor, executive coach, and coauthor of How Can I Help?.

But intervening is not always a straightforward prospect. “Peer-to-peer conflict is often fuzzy,” says Roderick Kramer, a social psychologist and the William R. Kimball Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. It’s not always clear who’s responsible and you may not know what to do. “People often find themselves in over their head. They think they can intervene, make suggestions, feel good about themselves, and move the conflict forward in a constructive way. But that’s not always possible,” says Kramer. Here’s how to respond next time you find yourself in the middle of a coworker battle.

Allow venting
It can be hard to listen to people complain but sometimes that’s exactly what they need. “Allowing colleagues the space and time to talk it out is a real luxury in workplaces,” says Ranieri. “People often just want a safe place to vent and in doing so, may figure out on their own what they want to do.” Kramer agrees: “There are times that people are just frustrated and need to express that. Venting isn’t an effective long-term strategy.  “Encourage people not to get caught in the trap of venting, ruminating, and gossiping about the situation,” says Kramer, because that won’t move things forward. “But there’s nothing wrong with tolerating a few complaints in the short term.” If you’re worried that by hearing one person out, you’ll upset the other (on small teams, it’s often obvious who’s talking to whom) make an effort to get both sides of the story. “At a minimum, you should keep a cordial relationship with the other person, but a better strategy is to demonstrate that you’re fully open to all your colleagues,” says Ranieri.

Empathize
While listening to your colleague, show that you understand how hard the situation is. You can say, “I’m sorry this is happening,” or “It’s tough when two people can’t see eye to eye.” But you don’t have to — and shouldn’t — take sides. “Don’t endorse one person’s point of view,” says Ranieri. Stay neutral instead and speak from your own experience. Offer observations like, “It seemed like Jane was stressed out and didn’t mean what she said,” or “I know that Joe is a direct person and can sometimes come off as harsh.” The key, Ranieri says, is to “show that you know where your colleague is coming from but not go as far to say, ‘You’re right and he’s wrong.’”  If you’re being pushed to choose a perspective, make it clear that you won’t: “You seem hurt but I can’t take sides because I have to work with both of you.”

Explain the impact of their fighting
After you’ve demonstrated your concern, make clear how the fighting is affecting the team. Ranieri suggests something like, “You two not getting along is hard for everyone and it’s preventing us from doing good work.” Help both parties see how the skirmish is hurting others so they are motivated to do something productive about it.

Offer advice cautiously
Before you give your two cents, ask your coworkers if they want your help. “We tend to offer unsolicited advice because we think we know better,” says Ranieri. But people might not want your opinion, so start by saying something like: “Would it be helpful if I suggested some ways to work this out?” Remember too that your particular perspective may not be helpful. “Maybe you’ve been through a workplace fight and the way you resolved it worked for you but it may not work for this situation,” Ranieri explains.

Problem-solve together
If your colleagues do want your advice, focus on making observations about what they might do, rather than concrete suggestions. Kramer suggests you think with each of them, or just the person confiding in you, about all the possible options and lay out a decision tree. “You should be more in problem-solving mode than gossip mode and together you can decide on the right intervention,” he says.

Broker a détente
Don’t rush to sit them down together, however. “Getting people into a room and letting them duke it out is not responsible,” says Kramer. “There are likely be asymmetries in their power or their abilities and you risk causing further damage to the relationship.” Of course, if the conflict has reached a crescendo — perhaps people are yelling — then you may have no option but to pull them into a meeting and quickly get to the root of the problem.

Beware resistance
Ranieri points out that there are some people that can’t and won’t be helped. She says that psychotherapists call these “Yes, but” clients. “Yes, I could approach Jane but I think she should approach me first.” “Yes, I want things to be better, but that will never work.” So despite your best attempts, you may not see progress. If one person insists she’s right or refuses help, it may be time to retreat. In those cases, you can push back the next time she approaches you: “We’ve talked about this multiple times and it doesn’t seem like you’re ready to resolve it, so I guess it is what it is right now.”

Don’t escalate
Kramer and Ranieri agree that it’s rarely a good idea to involve the sparring coworkers’ boss (or bosses) unless the problem is truly intractable and impeding work. “That would escalate the situation and possibly make one or both people feel like a victim,” says Kramer. Also, once you’ve raised it to other people, you may now be seen as part of the problem in their eyes, though you might consider approaching your own superior for advice as a last resort.

Know your limits
“Remember that you aren’t a psychologist or a mediator,” says Kramer. “If the situation is outside your comfort zone or you think the disagreement is juvenile, there’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘This is not my problem.’” Adds Ranieri: “When you’re in the helping role, you need to make sure you take care of yourself. You don’t have to be an unpaid referee.” But always give one or both of your coworkers a next step to take. You may want to say, “I’m not sure I’m the right person to help you with this but you might want sit down together or find someone else.” Suggest a dispassionate third party who’s not part of the team hierarchy, perhaps an ombudsman, or someone from HR.

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Allow your coworkers to vent
  • Empathize without taking sides
  • Refer them to someone else if you feel you can’t help

Don’t:

  • Throw your two cents in without checking that your advice is wanted
  • Try to play peacekeeper if you don’t have the skills or the time
  • Go to your coworkers’ boss unless the argument is untenable and disrupting work

Case study#1: Proceed cautiously
About a year ago, Rajit Kumar noticed that there was a problem brewing with two of his peers. It wasn’t overt — no yelling or banging tables — but Rajit saw that they often avoided each other and started to sit apart in meetings. The tension was affecting his team’s work so he wanted to get to the bottom of it. “I knew both of them reasonably well and I knew they were sensible, mature professionals,” he says, so  “I tried to understand the issue first.” He invited one of them out for a drink and learned through casual conversation that the problems didn’t stem from one incident but a mix of things: “There was a great deal of misunderstanding that snowballed and led to mistrust and dislike towards each other,” he explains.

Over the next several months, Rajit talked to both parties about what had happened. “I had at least three or four discussions with each of them to understand the real nature of conflict,” he says. These conversations gave him the confidence to agree when the two people asked him to serve as a formal mediator. “We had a good discussion but I didn’t focus on the conflict or their personalities or behaviors,” he says. “I focused on our common goal of being an effective team.” He also suggested that the three of them continue to meet casually so they could work on building trust.  It took time but eventually the two repaired their relationship, allowing the whole team to work well together again.

Case study #2: Defuse a tense situation
Vittoria was sitting at her desk one day when she heard loud voices coming from another part of the office. Two of her coworkers — let’s call them Alex and Brian — were having a heated argument. “They were very loud. Some people gathered around them and began to watch,” she says. “I didn’t know the specific reason for the fight but I knew there was a lot of tension at that time.” The firm, which offered legal advice and services to people and companies in debt, was in financial trouble, and there had been sporadic conflicts between Alex and Brian but nothing this serious.

Everyone else was frozen. “I realized that no one knew what to do and no one else was going to intervene,” Vittoria said. So she took action. “I slowly approached them and asked them to follow me,” she says. At first, they continued to yell but then she gently put a hand on each of their arms and repeated her request. The three of them went to a private corridor. “I didn’t ask anything at first. They were still too excited. I just offered them a glass of water,” she says. Once things were calmer, Vittoria pointed out that that the overall situation at the company was tense. “I described the conflict from my point of view to give them awareness of the tone in which they spoke. Then I told them that regardless of the reason for their fight they could deal with the issue in a different way,” she says. She also suggested that they might talk to the department head if there was a problem that couldn’t be resolved. “They did not react aggressively towards me. On the contrary, they realized that they had lost control,” she says. They thanked Vittoria and apologized to one another.

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Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review. Follow her on Twitter at@amyegallo.

How to Pick Your Battles at Work – by Amy Gallo

You hate that people consistently show up to meetings late. You find your company’s maternity policy woefully inadequate. You think the company’s IT system is out of date. It’s normal to be bothered by work issues like these, but when do you move from complaining to taking action? How do you decide which battles to fight?

What the Experts Say
One thing is certain — you can’t take on every problem at work. Each person has a finite amount of political capital. “If you make a huge fuss over something silly, you may not be able to get your way when it’s something really important,” says Dorie Clark, a strategy consultant and author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future. Even if you’re certain that the issues you want to tackle are critical, your reputation may suffer if you take them all on at once. “There’s a line you cross from being seen as an observant problem-solver to a being Debbie Downer,” says Karen Dillon, author of HBR Guide to Office Politics and co-author of How Will You Measure Your Life?. It’s important to figure out where that line is. Lois Kelly, co-author with Carmen Medina (see case study #1) of the upcoming book, Rebels at Work: Befriending the Bureaucratic Black Belts and Leading Change from Within, says the smartest people carefully calculate what’s worth their time and energy. Whether the issue is minor or fundamental, here are five principles to help you decide whether to take on a challenge or leave it alone.

Understand your authority
Before tackling something that’s irking you, you’ll need to assess whether you have the reputation and authority to succeed. “People are more willing to accommodate your requests if you’ve proven yourself,” says Clark. Do your best to keep in good standing with your superiors and co-workers. It’s also easier to fight a battle if it’s part of your job. Articulate the challenge in a way that fits into your role responsibilities. If that’s difficult to do, try to formally alter your job description to include the change you want to make.

Be sure you have a solution
You shouldn’t point out a problem without also having a constructive solution — or a plan for developing one — to offer. “You want to be seen as someone who brings ideas to the table in a positive way,” Dillon says.  If you have a critique but you’re not sure how to make things better, spend some time researching the issue and talking to others before you raise it.

Ask yourself how important the issue is to you and the organization
There are costs to going against the grain so you need to be sure it’s worth it. Is the issue a pet peeve or is truly getting in the way of your and your colleagues’ critical work? Think through the risks. “If you’re launching a crusade to get Dunkin’ Donuts coffee instead of Starbucks, the upside is you get the kind of coffee you want but the downside is you look like an unproductive zealot,” Clark warns. Kelly agrees: “Effective rebels have a good radar for what matters to the organization.” She suggests you rate the importance of the problem on a scale of 1 to 10. If it’s a 6 or below, she recommends dropping it. Clark adds that you should be able to articulate how your solution will move your group or company toward its goals. That said, if the issue is a relatively minor one and will require minimal resources to fix, it might still be worth tackling.

Test the waters
Change initiatives are notoriously difficult, so test your idea before diving in. “Go to some trusted colleagues and bounce it off of them,” Clark says. “If they think it will be a Herculean task, then you might want to reconsider. If they think you’re on to something, you’ve got a good data point.” You don’t have to set up a formal meeting; just try floating your proposed solution when the issue comes up naturally. For example, after a long meeting, you could say, “It seems we spend way too much time doing this. Maybe we could try standing meetings to encourage people to move along faster.” Then see how your suggestion is received.

Enlist supporters
Shopping your solution around serves another purpose — it builds early support. And it’s much easier to take something on if you have people behind you. “When it comes time to present the idea, you can point to what you’ve learned from others. That shows you’re not a lone ranger,” says Kelly. Look for supporters beyond your immediate circle to show you’ve got broad backing. But be careful. You don’t want it to seem like you’re secretly trying to get people on your side, says Dillon; make it clear that your aim is to bring like-minded people together to brainstorm possible solutions. And don’t join bad company. “Don’t align yourself with a constant complainer or with people who are unwilling to fight their own battles,” she adds.  “Pick people you know are well respected.”

It’s not essential to have your boss on board — but it can be helpful. At the same time, don’t expect him or her to fight your battles for you. “You don’t want to run to your manager every time you want something to change,” Dillon says. “Communicate with him or her once you’ve got some well thought out ideas and a plan for how you will address it.”

Principles to Remember

Do:

  • Articulate how the challenge fits into your job or make it a formal part of your responsibilities
  • Have a viable solution, or at least a plan of attack, in mind before you raise a problem
  • Be careful about how many battles you take on — you could run out of political capital

Don’t:

  • Take on an issue that isn’t in some way important to the organization
  • Rely on your boss to wage the battle for you — approach her with a thought-out plan
  • Dive in until you’ve first floated the idea by colleagues you trust — both those you know well and those outside of your immediate circle

Case study #1: Make it part of your job
Before filling her current role as Specialist Leader at Deloitte Consulting, Carmen Medina spent 32 years in a government security agency. Ten years into her career there, in the mid-1990s, she realized that the agency’s business model was lacking a digital strategy. “I started thinking that this stuff is really serious and we needed to get moving and do something about it,” she says. She wanted the agency to figure out how to deliver information to policymakers digitally, but most of her early rumblings on the topic fell on deaf ears.

Still, Carmen was obsessed. “I remember boring my poor friends talking about how the Internet was going to change everything,” she says. She knew she’d have more luck with this battle if it was part of her job description and, in 1998, she was given that opportunity. “A new position opened with a long list of responsibilities, and figuring out online delivery was one of them — although the last item on the list,” she says. “But I knew that I wanted to make it a bigger part of the job.” In her interview, Carmen emphasized how important she thought that was. The hiring manager told her that she’d given him a lot to think about and eventually offered her the position.

Even with digital strategy as an official part of her duties, the battle wasn’t easy. But eventually she helped transform the way the agency worked. “You always want to be right when you take on a battle and I was pretty sure I was right about this one,” she says.

Case study #2: Own the solution
Caroline Johanssen* was annoyed. Every month, all of the employees in her department met for a safety meeting. The department’s admin sent out the invite and downloaded the slides from the pharmaceutical company’s intranet site. People took turns presenting, but it was a joke. “We would be looking at the same slides we’d seen months ago. One slide we saw in eight of the monthly meetings,” she says. It disrupted the workday and was a huge waste of everyone’s time. So Caroline started asking around to find out why the meeting was mandated.  Surprisingly, people knew very little. “I just wanted to get the facts about the requirement. Do we really work for a company that makes us do this every month? Everybody is saying yes but no one knows why,” she recalls.

After talking to several people including her boss, the department head, and the admin organizing the meeting, Caroline discovered that it was indeed required. She suggested combining it with other meetings but that became too complicated so she instead decided to take over herself. “I began putting together what I thought were more meaningful slides. I found ideas on our safety website. It was a good opportunity so my colleagues started speaking up too.” Eventually they turned the meeting into something that people found productive and useful. “I don’t like to complain about things that I’m not willing to do something about,” Caroline says.

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Amy Gallo is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review. Follow her on Twitter at@amyegallo.