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Culturally Competent Performance Discussions

He avoids eye contact. She shakes her head frequently. What some managers interpret as insecurity or disagreement might be nothing of the sort. Experts say cultural competence can help ensure performance discussions are effective

"Performance evaluations are one of the activities that call on you to make use of all the cultural skills at your disposal,” say Charlene Solomon and Michael Schell in their book Managing Across Cultures: The Seven Keys to Doing Business With a Global Mindset (McGraw-Hill, 2009). “They need to be approached with understanding, wisdom and appreciation of the cultural message.

“Failing to take into account the cultural impact of providing employee evaluation and feedback can ruin trust, demotivate individuals and even cause the organization the loss of talent, to say nothing of the fact that the desired performance enhancement would not be accomplished,” Solomon and Schell told SHRM Online.

“Performance appraisal determines ratings, compensation, careers, who will be key contributors to business and who will be our future leaders,” said Peter Bye, president of MDB Group, Inc. and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Workplace Diversity Special Expertise Panel. “That’s why it’s so important that performance management be done effectively.”

“An American manager who is accustomed to giving direct, brief and targeted feedback can permanently impair the relationship with an Indian colleague who expects a more tactful, indirect, subtle evaluation,” Solomon and Schell said. “It’s important for managers to observe how feedback is given in other cultures and to adapt their styles to local expectations.”

For example, the United States is a “low context” culture, according to Geert Hofstede, who researched cultural norms around the world. This means that the spoken word is generally the most important part of communication, Bye explained. “We are also very direct communicators and expect people to speak their mind and not hold back [and we are] very task-oriented and quite egalitarian,” he told SHRM Online.

However, individuals from cultures such as China and India will be very hesitant to speak about themselves openly and honestly, according to Dean Foster, president of Dean Foster Associates, a global intercultural consulting and training company. They won’t speak about their successes because humility is so deeply ingrained in their culture, he said, and they won’t talk about whether they are getting along with someone or ask their manager for help.

This means that managers might not be able to get the information they need in a face-to-face meeting, Foster said. Instead, communication will occur through the informal network a manager builds with employees and third-party intermediaries over time.

Critical Skill

“The ability to work cross culturally—to interpret behavior for what people mean and not what we think the intent is—and to accurately manage these differences and not to misinterpret them, is an essential requirement for management of the 21st century,” Foster told SHRM Online. “We are working across cultures, whether down the hall or on a virtual telecom; it’s unavoidable,” he added. “Anyone who does not understand cultural differences will be lost.”

Yet Bye said that two-thirds of U.S. based managers probably think they have a multicultural perspective of cultural difference. “They think they get it but they don’t,” he said. “They tend to be aware of the visible 10 percent of cultural difference but are not aware of the 90 percent of the invisible aspects of cultural difference.”

“It’s like trying to teach a fish the concept of water,” said Dick Grote, founder of Grote Consulting and author of Forced Ranking: Making Performance Management Work (Harvard Business School Press, 2005) and other books on performance management. “We are so surrounded by our culture we don’t recognize it.”

Bye encourages managers to think of their cultural identity as a set of tinted lenses they have been wearing over their ears, eyes, nose, mouth and fingers since birth.

He says cultural competency should become a standard part of leadership competencies, such as innovating or managing change, and that managers should be given the opportunity to develop skills.

But Bye prefers the term “cultural fluency” to terms like “cultural competency” and “cultural sensitivity” because the opposite terms—“cultural incompetence” and “cultural insensitivity”— don’t sound very good. “We need people to understand that [training is] developmental, not to fix a problem,” he said. “None of us is born having a strong multicultural perspective.”

Developing Cultural Competence

Anyone who wants to improve their cultural competence must improve their ability to adapt to different circumstances, suggests Lynae Steinhagen, managing partner of Madd-Steiny Productions, LLC, a consultancy focused on creativity, collaboration and communication.

“Being open to, and curious about, a diversity of communication styles, opinions, values and cultural norms makes individuals far more effective in dealing with the vast array of difference evident in the workplace and marketplace today,” she told SHRM Online.

For example, feedback can be given in a more indirect style, according to Anita Zanchettin, director of global diversity and inclusion for the consultancy Aperian Global and member of SHRM’s Workplace Diversity Special Expertise Panel. “Instead of calling it feedback they can talk about expectations, they can speak to the entire group, or they could give it in more informal settings, such as walking down the hall or grabbing a cup of coffee together.”

If a formal, face-to-face performance appraisal does take place, Steinhagen suggests, managers should:

  • Observe the behavior of the other person and have a willingness to adjust behavior to match it, as appropriate.
  • Let go of judgments about the other person’s body language.
  • Sit comfortably near the employee, without a desk or table in between. Respect the space around the other person while creating a sense of safety and welcoming.
  • Have notes handy to share but don’t read them. Speak from the heart with authenticity.
  • Accept that the person you are speaking with recognizes that you are in a position of power.
  • Consider whether it is more appropriate to be relationship focused or task focused, and adapt as needed.
  • Recognize that cultural values might influence the amount of feedback you receive from the employee.
  • Make time for the conversation to flow naturally. Schedule a performance discussion when you are sure to have no interruptions and can provide your undivided attention for at least 60 minutes. Learn to be comfortable with a little silence.
  • Offer some time for the employee to think about the performance feedback and to respond later during a separate meeting or via e-mail.

Body Language

The ability to interpret an employee’s body language correctly is essential.

“In some cultures eye contact is assumed to indicate honesty and straightforwardness; in others it is seen as challenging and rude,” Steinhagen said. “In Western cultures, eye contact is generally valued as an expression of confidence, respect, interest or common courtesy. In African or East-Asian cultures direct eye contact with an individual in authority is generally regarded as aggressive and rude. ”

However, too much eye contact (such as staring) can make Westerners very uncomfortable, she added, while in Latin and some Middle Eastern cultures, maintaining eye contact for a long period of time during interactions is considered respectful.

Other forms of body language hold different meanings. “In Western cultures nodding your head up and down is known to mean ‘yes,’ and yet in Bulgaria and Greece, this gesture means ‘no,’” Steinhagen explained.

“People can get very different meanings out of the conversation, and it can be particularly tragic when it’s a high-leverage, high-value conversation like the performance appraisal meeting,” Bye said, “since it can determine the whole future of a person’s career.”

Customize the Communication

However, Bye noted that it’s important not to assume that individuals from certain cultures will behave in a particular way. If differences are noticed, however, a supervisor might want to discuss them so the individuals can find a way to communicate effectively.

“To be an effective manager you have to develop people-specific and team-specific ways of communicating and working together effectively,” Bye said. “It’s laying the groundwork first for effect performance and then for an effective performance discussion.”

Bye contrasted the golden rule (do unto others as you would have done unto you) with the platinum rule (do unto others as they would like to have done unto them) to explain that managers should interact with employees based on the employee’s cultural norms, not the manager’s.


Waiting until the night before a performance appraisal discussion to bone up on culture won’t work, Bye said.

Corporate leadership needs to build cultural competence into the organization’s DNA, according to Foster, and make it a part of how the organization operates.

“Performance conversations are not once- or twice-a-year events,” said Lance Jensen Richards, GPHR, SPHR, senior director and global practice leader of human resources consulting, Kelly Outsourcing and Consulting Group. “A really good manager, regardless of where in the world she or he works, engenders and maintains an ongoing performance conversation with their people.”

“Your role as a leader is to help someone else’s performance improve. … You must seek to find the best possible way to achieve that goal,” Steinhagen said.“An effective manager or leader is one who can adapt his or her style to any situation and to any culture.”

“We need to think about what’s getting in the way [of success] so we can all be very creative about how we deal with it,” Zanchettin said.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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