To praise or not to praise…

is mostly a cultural question

Six months into her new assignment Stefanie Müller realized that things weren’t going as well as she had anticipated when she relocated from Düsseldorf to Atlanta. She took over as EVP of sales and marketing at the North American subsidiary of a global precision engineering company. Unlike at the home office her team was now rather diverse, mainly consisting of employees from the U.S., Germany, South Korea and Mexico.

When I met Stefanie she had become worried that staff cohesion within her department was decreasing and that they might default on some project deadlines. After talking to a handful of her colleagues it became obvious that some team members felt utterly underappreciated at work. They didn’t receive the kind of praise Stefanie’s American predecessor gave them. In fact, some thought that she rarely commended any of them at all.

It all began a few months earlier when the first employees quit, which Stefanie didn’t see as a big deal since they were underperformers by her standards. Two months later she lost a key sales reps. Three weeks after that, a marketing manager quit — only days before the roll-out of a new campaign. All of the team members who quit were Americans. The colleagues with Korean or Hispanic background appeared unaffected of whatever caused the exits.

Why did the Americans leave? Why did the Koreans and Mexicans seem unfazed? While Stefanie was willing to accept that her German style of leadership — one that works with little reinforcing positive feedback — didn’t allow her to succeed in the new work environment, she was unsure which amount of praise was appropriate for the different cultural groups within her team.

Many global leaders are facing this issue when giving feedback to diverse teams. Recognizing employees in an attempt to stimulate high performance and to reach higher levels of engagement is a motivational currency wich carries varying value in different cultures. Knowing how to spend it is critical. In a global business world not everyone will respond to the same levels of commendation in the same way.

Coming from a culture with a history of emotional restraint, Stefanie was socialized to frown upon too frequent plaudits. Americans, arguably representatives of one of the most emotionally expressive and individualistic cultures, are longing for reinforcing public attention. And it turned out she starved them of praise until some key team players decided they had enough. The colleagues from Seoul and Querétaro both hail from communitarian cultures which can easily be embarrassed by too much public attention and by being singled out — even if it means being recognized as a high performer.

So what are Stefanie and other global leaders to do? Knowing how much praise your team members need to stay engaged is one thing, being able to adapt your way of giving praise isn’t always that easy.

Recommendation #1: Familiarize yourself with the behavioral preferences of the cultures you’re interacting with. Obvious as this may sound, it is important to learn the values of your counterparts. This means more than just the stereotypical “Dos“ and “Don’ts“ — the more you understand the “Why“ behind certain behaviors, the more you realize the importance of shifting yours. Cultural training programs lay a great foundation and should be general practice in today’s business world.

Recommendation #2: Try the new behavior. Modifying how you communicate might go against your own cultural grain. It will feel unauthentic, awkward to do. Do it anyway. You’ll be surprised how flexible you are.
Stefanie had to practice several new behaviors. With the Americans she shifted away from her customary “Thank you.“ But switching to phrases like “great job“ or “well done“ would have been insincere for her. So she made it a point to pay closer attention to detail and to be more specific about her praise. To remain genuine she now tells her staff: “I liked the way you handled that new client. It’s great to see how you care about the success of our team.“ Was it uncomfortable to talk like this? Sure, but Stefanie customized her behavior and flexed her cultural muscle to get closer to the behavioral preference of her host culture.
With her Korean and Mexican colleagues she took a similar approach. However, instead of recognizing the good work of individuals she commended the team. While she was a little more assertive with her Hispanic staffers, she made sure to praise the dedicated work ethic of the Korean team members, catering to their national pride. “Thank you for having our back there,“ she now tells the customer service manager, who defused the anger of an unhappy client.

Recommendation #3: Find people who are fluent in the target culture and be coachable. This can be your cultural trainer, or somebody in your social circles whom you trust. Lee Seo-yeon was introduced to Stefanie by Gregor Schmidt. Gregor, a fellow German and seasoned expatriate who worked as an attorney at an international law firm, had become a confidant to Stefanie and coached her through the major differences with Americans. Seo-yeon, an HR specialist at a Korean conglomerate in Atlanta, met with Stefanie twice a month and introduced her to the intricacies of Korean work and social live, which is trying to balance Confucianism and modernism.
In dealing with Mexicans and Koreans it was helpful for Stefanie to realize that both cultures value harmony and mutual respect. Receiving praise is relevant to them but it is important that the recognition doesn’t upset the balance of the team. Giving sincere compliments, showing respect or doing something that raises self-esteem helps balance Korean “kibun“ and fosters relationship-building which is important for Mexican teams.

Recommendation #4: Understand that you can’t inject another culture. Cultural adaptation is a process of approximation. The closer you can stretch your behavioral muscle to shift towards the target culture, the higher your success rate will be. Over time, practicing the new behaviors Stefanie was able to develop her own style. It wasn’t German, where the old saying goes “No criticism is enough praise,“ and it certainly wasn’t American, Mexican or Korean. It turned out to be a mixture, a well-balanced compromise.

In global business the skill to balance behavioral preferences is key. However, companies would be remiss to leave the acquisition of this skill only up to their leadership. Smart businesses know that all levels of their global organizations benefit from cultural adaptability. Being able to give praise in the proper cultural context is just as important for engagement as the employees’ skill to receive different forms of praise.

This post is an adaptation of an article I co-wrote with Andy Molinksy for Harvard Business Review.

As a response to the tweets about our HBR blog article Andy and I where pointed to the video clip below. Let me know what you think about it in the comments section.

If you are interested in learning more about cultural competence and foreign language skills, I invite you to sign up for my company’s newsletter, The Culture Reflections. As a token of my appreciation you will receive a series of complimentary white papers on cultural competence from our team!
Go ahead and sign up here now and I will send you the download links to the free white papers via email.




Coach to Decision Makers • The Culture Guy • Closing your Culture Gaps • Challenging your notion of “normal” • IQ+CQ+EQ=ICE-Q •

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Christian Höferle

Christian Höferle

Coach to Decision Makers • The Culture Guy • Closing your Culture Gaps • Challenging your notion of “normal” • IQ+CQ+EQ=ICE-Q •

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