Feedback and Ethnicity

 In Pei Blog

Is there an “Asian American” way to handle feedback?  How does ethnicity impact feedback processes and growth?

Note: This is Part 10 of a 10-part series on feedback.  I’ve compiled the entire series in a free book you can download here.

Ethnicity and differences matter.  I’ve worked in ethnic and cross-cultural leadership development for the past decade, so everything I write comes from what I’ve learned in working with leaders from very different backgrounds and perspectives.

In my experience, there are two extremes when people start thinking about ethnic diversity and leadership:

  1. “People aren’t that different.”

This first mentality is that the most important principles of leadership transcend cultural differences.  So for example, all the things I’ve discussed in my series on feedback should apply to anybody of any culture who reads it.

The problem when we take this mentality to an extreme is that we tend to make assumptions without asking, learning, and getting to know people who are different from us.  It may be true that two people of different ethnicities are more similar than we think… but how will we truly know that unless we ask questions like, “What was it like for you growing up?  What were things like in your family?  How did you feel about being Latino?”  Even if some leadership principles are consistently true across cultures, there are always new insights and applications we can glean from people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and perspectives.  And we miss out in huge ways if we fail to see this.

  1. “You just don’t understand, that doesn’t work in my culture.”

This second mentality is that leadership is quite different from one culture to another.  So for example, someone might read my series on feedback and conclude, “That’s great, but does it really work for Asian Americans?  Or for older generations?  Is that just something for extroverts who like direct communication?”  And so on.

The problem when we take this mentality to an extreme is that we tend to “write things off” by stereotyping, which also inhibits learning and the leadership growth process.  It may be true that there are components of feedback that are counter-intuitive or challenging to Asian Americans, but if that’s the case shouldn’t we explore what parts might apply and what parts might not?  And why or why not?  But too often we use ethnic differences as a way to shut down the conversation or learning process, rather than move it forward.

So what can be done about this?

Let’s try a “case study” of how we might evaluate this entire topic of feedback according to ethnicity:

  1. Majority culture case study: “People aren’t that different”

Let’s say you’re from the majority culture (Caucasian, if you live in the U.S.) and you lean towards Extreme Mentality #1 of “people aren’t that different” when it comes to feedback.  One thing you can do is simply find two people of different ethnicities than yourself and ask them:

  • How did your family handle conflict growing up?   How did your parents give you feedback?  Did you ever feel the freedom to give them feedback?
  • What is the hardest thing for you to do, when it comes to giving or receiving feedback?  Why do you think it’s so hard for you?

Then reflect with the other person:

  • What was similar about our experiences and views on feedback?
  • What was different about our experiences and views on feedback?
  • What did you learn from the other person that you didn’t know or understand before?
  1. Minority culture case study: “You just don’t understand, that doesn’t work in my culture”

Let’s say you’re from a minority culture (say Asian American, if you live in the U.S.) and you lean towards Extreme Mentality #2 of “you just don’t understand, that doesn’t work in my culture.”  As a first step, think through the topic of feedback (for instance as outlined in my series) and then answer these questions:

  • Which principles and ideas about feedback apply to Asian Americans, in your own experience?
  • Which principles and ideas about feedback don’t necessarily apply as well to Asian Americans, in your own experience?  Why not?
  • What principles or ideas would you suggest as an alternative to the ones listed, for Asian Americans?
  • What applications would you suggest to better speak to Asian Americans?

Here’s my take on how feedback plays out for a lot of Asian Americans.  I say “a lot” because I don’t like to overgeneralize, as there’s a lot of diversity and variance even among Asian American cultures and generations.

A few of the cultural themes I see that impact the feedback process are:

  1. The desire for harmony and avoidance of conflict (don’t “rock the boat” or “make waves”)
  2. Quiet and indirectness in communication, out of deference and respect for others
  3. Strong family structures and hierarchy, which make it harder to confront or critique authority

Again, I try not to go to Extreme Mentality # 1, which would be to just say, “Get over it!  You just have to be direct and confront people sometimes, even if it offends them.”  I also try not to go to Extreme Mentality # 2, which would be to say, “See!  We just don’t do feedback well, because of all these cultural factors.”

Instead, I see all these cultural themes as significant factors to pay attention to, because they influence and impact people.  I see them as challenges that need creative solutions or approaches, so that our feedback process will be most effective and honoring to the people involved.

So for instance, maybe in some families I would need to bring up a feedback topic gently over the course of two meetings, rather than going “all out” with full blast intensity in the first meeting.  Or maybe I’d need to show my respect by cooking dinner and sharing in a meal with my parents before bringing up a topic of feedback.  Try to think about your family or context.  What do you think would work for you?

The key is to think creatively and constructively, instead of dismissing ideas or just getting stuck with no way to move forward.

As you look back on my series on feedback, you may notice that a lot of the wording and processes suggested are meant to be relational and honoring of people.  I think a lot of them can work in your context, but sometimes we have to also think about the challenges we face and how to address them.  That’s part of the process of what it means to “contextualize” leadership for our setting… because there’s no leadership material on any one topic that will speak perfectly to every culture, personality, generation, socio-economic class, and all of its nuances and challenges.  We are the ones who get to do that through the process of exploring, trying, and learning! 

May you find that process exciting, invigorating, and empowering!

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