How to Give Feedback Cross-Culturally

 In Pei Blog

Sometimes we freeze up because we don’t want to abuse our power, or be insensitive.  Maybe there’s a better way.

There’s a dynamic I’ve observed frequently while working in cross-cultural leadership, and even noticing cross-cultural conversations in the public eye (e.g. sports, entertainment, etc.).  When an ethnic minority expresses him or herself – through giving a public speech or writing an article about racial relations – the reaction of majority culture leaders is usually extreme.  Either there’s a backlash and harsh disagreement, or there’s a ton of support and encouragement.  Rarely do you see people of the majority culture give a combination of positive and constructive feedback to an ethnic minority.

Or sometimes there’s silence.  Sometimes after I give a talk or write some content, I invite feedback – but no matter how much I ask for it, I sense a hesitation from some majority culture leaders.  I think that they really mean well and don’t want to deflate those who are minorities, or abuse their power or voice.  Or in some cases, they might fear whether or not they are being “PC” enough, or whether they’ll face accusations of being insensitive.  So even if they have something they might want to say, they instead choose to stay silent.

It can feel pretty complex to know what to do with this.  But while I appreciate the heart of these majority culture leaders, I want and need their feedback and perspective.  I’m missing something vital and critical when I don’t hear from them.  In fact, in all of my closest cross-cultural relationships, my friends or coworkers haven’t shied away from telling me hard truths (along with much encouragement of course).  They’ve recognized that giving me constructive feedback is part of helping me grow, and uplifting me in the long run.  And I’ve appreciated it, because that’s a measure of respect they are showing me as well – that although I may have wounds as a minority, I also have strength and resilience.

So what to do about this?  Fortunately, it may not be as complex or difficult to give cross-cultural feedback as we might think.  Here are a few tips we can start practicing:

  1. Do it in person or over phone/video.

    E-mail is just the worst way to deliver or receive feedback.  I’m learning that I should really avoid it almost at all costs.  With cross-cultural feedback, relationships and trust are so important, and those are just so much more present when people are face to face.  With e-mail, minorities sometimes can more easily avoid contact or go into shame silently, when they feel hurt or self-doubt.

  1. Acknowledge your dilemma.

    Simply state your desires and concerns upfront to the person.

    For instance: “I was thinking of offering you some feedback, but I’m afraid that I may come across as insensitive or discourage you, and that’s the last thing I want to do.  I recognize that I’m from the majority culture, and as a result I may not even be aware of a lot of things.  But my heart is really to help you (or this project) to succeed in any way that I can.  What are your thoughts?”

  1. Ask questions first, if you’re not sure you understand.

    A few months ago, I was trying to offer some constructive feedback to a younger leader, and I realized later that I should have asked her more questions first, before making statements.  Like, “What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced while working on this project or team?”  If I asked questions, it might help me to understand more, and also give her a chance to be heard.

Again, relationships are key.  If we don’t know someone that well, doing the steps above can actually build trust and intimacy.  I have a kind of “bond” with the people who have confronted me in love, and whom I’ve confronted in love.  We’ve become closer because we’ve faced something difficult together — because our relationship or growth was worth it.

One final note.  A friend once remarked to me that it’s difficult that we’re in a more powerful position and can really impact younger minority leaders.  I agree, and it sobers me that I have the power to deflate someone.  I think that power should sober us.  But I don’t want that to stop me from investing in leaders by helping them develop and grow, which often is through constructive feedback.  Instead, I want to learn to deliver feedback graciously to these leaders, which I believe can actually provide healing and deeper trust.  All majority culture leaders have this opportunity, too!

For more, check out my posts on “Feedback and Power,” “Feedback and Ethnicity,” and The Art of Growing Through Feedback (free download).

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