Feedback in the US

There are volumes to be written on giving positive and constructive feedback in different cultures. For some cultures feedback is brutally honest.  In other cultures positive feedback is given only sparingly.  In some Asian cultures feedback is so subtitle that it is not perceptible by Westerners.  In other cultures feedback is given and received neutrally, and there are cultures where feedback is sugarcoated to the extent that the receiver completely forgets her/his areas of improvement.

Feedback is about communicating to people what you think about their performance and how they could improve it whether they are trouble shooting, giving an effective presentation, conducting a sale, leading a team… When given professionally it is powerful and valuable information for the receiver.

After having spent 36 years in France, there is nothing that is so diametrically opposed than American and French feedback. In my opinion one is not better than the other. They are just different.

Let’s talk about 3 characteristics of feedback in the US.

Positive Feedback is abundant in the US

It all starts in Kindergarten: In the US pupils start receiving feedback in the form of encouragement in kindergarten. Later in primary and secondary school teachers will encourage and congratulate any student making a serious effort to improve their performance. Trying and striving are almost as important to teachers as being the top student. Having spent some time teaching in secondary education I must admit there was nothing more satisfying to me than helping a subpar performing student who was making genuine efforts to improve his/her performance.  In the US we reward students who make real efforts to improve. US feedback often rewards efforts made rather than excellence. In the business environment managers frequently congratulate their staff and teams for the efforts they are making. ‘Good job’, ‘great’, ‘nice work’ ‘thank you’ might sound unnecessary, hollow and insincere in many cultures but not for Americans at work.

Constructive feedback in the US

In certain cultures negative or constructive feedback is brutally direct. Managers in these cultures will focus on the ‘Bottle half empty’ leaving the positive points of performance clearly as secondary. The positive side of this type of feedback is that the receiver knows in no uncertain terms what she or he has to do to improve and what is expected of them. This type of feedback process has been taking hold in some of the US’s ultra competitive companies like Amazon, Tesla, and other US financial and Tech companies.  In these “Shark Tank” companies 360° feedback is constant, savage and caustic.

Americans are known for being direct, transparent communicators. However, when it comes to giving feedback in the office, this isn’t always the case. For the most part  the majority of mangers in the more mainstream companies in the US practice “sandwich feedback” technique with their staff e.g. A slice of positive feedback, followed by improvements to be made in the middle, then a final slice of positive feedback. Everyone leaves on a positive note and relatively happy. The downside with this process is that we tend to minimize the areas of improvement. It is a well known fact that US managers in general do not like giving constructive or negative feedback. This is for a number of reasons i.e. emotional outburst, loss of commitment, hurt feelings, and not wanting to damage the “positive” management culture of the company etc.

Advice on feedback with your American colleagues or subordinates

We all need positive and constructive feedback in order to improve. My suggestions to you are:

Give positive feedback on a regular basis. “Saying Good job”, “Nice work”, or “Thank You” for work that is only normal or routine might sound insincere to most Europeans.  In the US it is appreciated by all. If you do this on a regular basis you will not be perceived as the negative European when you have to give constructive feedback to a subordinate or peer.

Avoid the sandwich feedback technique. The sandwich feedback technique sounds great in principle.  However it does not reinforce the need for change or improvement by the receiver. I always suggest starting by some positive feedback and quickly get to the constructive part. Once this part has been dealt with, try building an action plan with the receiver to resolve the behavior in question or how to improve a performance problem. Set milestones with the receiver for improvement targets and meetings to re-discuss changes observed.

Be factual and be prepared. Most employees can hear any type of feedback as long as it is factual.  Many times we are never sure how negative feedback will be received. Some people are more resistant, defensive or emotive than others. Getting the facts straight before your meeting (dates, situation, outcomes and damage done etc..) and preparing for different scenarios and reactions is essential for you as a manager or as a concerned colleague to help the other party.

All cultures have their feedback specifics. Please remember that feedback that might be perceived as constructive in one culture might be extremely damaging in another. Positive feedback not given in some cultures is a sign that everything is ok. “No news = good news” as the proverb goes. Getting your feedback technique right takes preparation, practice, and a little empathy.  Constructive feedback given in the right way in the right conditions is a gift to the receiver and will enhance your credibility as a manager and/or team member.

If you would like to know more about US culture, communication and feedback processes contact us!

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