Understatement is a well-known British trait, and often frames the way people give negative feedback. Brits often use what linguists call "downgraders" when delivering criticism – words that soften the blow, such as "kind of", "sort of" and "a little bit". In London, where the workforce is one of the most multicultural in the world, this approach often collides headlong with an expectation from other nationalities of a more direct approach.
These cultures often use "upgraders" – words preceding or following negative feedback that make it feel stronger, such as "absolutely" or "totally". Marcus Klopfer, a German finance director, attests to the confusion this can create: "in Germany, we typically use strong words when giving negative feedback to make sure the message registers clearly. During a one-on-one, my British boss 'suggested that I think about' doing something differently. I took his suggestion, thought about it and decided not to do it. Little did I know that his phrase was supposed to be interpreted as 'change your behaviour right away or else'. I was pretty surprised when he called me into his office to chew me out for insubordination."
Klopfer learned to analyse messages by ignoring the downgraders and focusing his attention on the raw message in the middle. He also learned when giving negative feedback himself to "start by sprinkling the ground with a few light positive comments and words of appreciation," then easing into the feedback with "a few small suggestions."
There is one rule for working with cultures that are more direct than yours: don't try to do it like them.
Kwang Young-Su, a Korean manager who had been working in the Netherlands for six years, made this mistake. Young-Su explains: "the Dutch culture is very direct, and we Koreans do not like to give direct negative feedback, so when I first came to the Netherlands, I was shocked at how blunt they could be. I thought that the only way to deal with this was to give it back to them." Kwang's Dutch colleagues later complained that they found him so aggressive that they were practically unable to work with him.
MIX POSITIVE WITH NEGATIVE
When giving negative feedback, consider not only how many upgraders or downgraders you are using, but also whether to wrap positive feedback around negative feedback. You'll often have better luck giving negative feedback to Americans if you explicitly state something that you appreciate about the person before moving onto what you'd like that person to do differently. Try also to be balanced in the amount of positive and negative feedback you give. If you notice something positive your colleague has done, say it there and then, with explicit appreciation.
Above all, think about the norms of the culture you are working with, and consider how that might impact the way your criticism is received. The Thai manager has been taught never to criticise a colleague openly or in front of others, while the Dutch manager has learned always to be honest and to give the message straight. Americans are trained to wrap positive messages around negative ones, while the French may be used to criticising passionately and providing positive feedback sparingly.
With a little focus and practice, you can learn to adapt your style to numerous world cultures and get the results you are hoping for.