Delivering criticism to global virtual teams isn’t easy. Even if your whole team speaks the same language and generally communicates with ease, you can’t just drop by someone’s office for a face to face chat about an issue. What’s more, when it comes to giving and receiving feedback, different cultures can act in considerably different ways. Still, it’s crucial to understand such differences, since constructive criticism is an important part of getting global virtual teams to perform their best.

Try This Global Virtual Team Thought Experiment

Imagine you’re an American leading a global virtual team with members from the Netherlands, Japan, and the UK. You’ve just finished reviewing the first stage of plans submitted by each division, but the work isn’t up to par. Heading in to your team’s weekly virtual meeting, you know you have to be the bearer of bad news in order to get the project back on track.

Here’s the problem: each culture on your team handles communication and criticism in vastly different ways. The Dutch, for example, are extremely direct communicators. They embrace giving and receiving open criticism as a chance to improve themselves and their work, and they won’t take offense when critiqued.

But then there’s the Japanese, who tend to communicate indirectly. While the Dutch will openly offer and receive frank, concise feedback, the Japanese tend to value a well-crafted message that is subtle and polite. The Japanese also tend to avoid giving overt negative responses or feedback, so they may respond with “yes” even if they mean the opposite. Directly criticizing Japanese folks could cause them to lose face and feel embarrassed.

Then there’s the British folks who fall somewhere in between. Like the Dutch, they are open to honest feedback. But it’s all done through a technique called “sandwiching,” in which a critique is sandwiched between two positive statements. Here’s an example:

“Say, Stan, lovely job on the graphics. Maybe we should review the projections a bit, but the report looks great.”

The boldedbit in that statement is the important part – the criticism. But sandwiching tends to confuse the Dutch who prefer straightforward direction no matter the circumstance, and it might even confuse more direct American communicators, too.

I’m sure you’re starting to see why delivering criticism to a team of four distinct cultures can be so tricky!

Five Things to Consider When Sharing Feedback Across Cultures

At CultureWizard, we often help global virtual teams navigate situations like the one above. Here are some suggestions when it comes to breaching the culture and criticism divide:

1. Talk about culture and how it impacts the way we say and hear things, especially criticism. Share examples from your own culture and your own preferences for giving and receiving feedback to make the point. Then, ask others to share their perspective, too.

2. Critique in private, whenever possible. If there’s an individual performance issue, always be sure to address it privately. Set aside time for a quick call or video chat with whomever is struggling with a task. This way you can take their cultural communication and criticism preferences into account when handling the situation.

3. Try not to embarrass anyone. There might be times where several team members – or your whole team – is floundering, meaning you need to deliver constructive criticism to the group as a whole. If this is the case, make a general statement about the problem and talk about the issue without singling anyone out. Then, when possible, privately address individual team members as needed.

4. Be clear, concise, and kind. When delivering constructive criticism, be as clear as possible, even if you’re making a general statement to the team as a whole. Reiterate your main points before your meeting comes to an end and ask individuals to re-state in their own words what they’ve understood their next steps to be. That way, everyone knows what is expected of them.

5. Provide clear directions in written form so your team can have something to go back to after the meeting that constructively explains your criticism. If you know individuals expect you to manage processes closely, don’t take anything for granted. Extra detail and context won’t hurt, especially when the goal is better performance.

At times, the cross-cultural challenges of working on a global virtual team can feel daunting. It’s not easy to go against our natural tendencies. But taking the time to understand how expectations differ from culture to culture when dealing with criticism pays off. By knowing how you and your colleagues respond to constructive feedback, you’ll be less likely to offend and irritate—and more likely to raise performance levels to their highest.