“We did not play a huge game but we showed mental quality,” said French coach Didier Deschamps after the world cup final. Judging by the tone you may believe that he was trying to be positive after a painful loss. Quite the opposite: his team had just won the 2018 men’s world cup final for the first time in 20 years. He was overjoyed.
US coach Jill Ellis expressed her feelings more explicitly after the US women’s soccer team won the 2019 world cup: “This is an amazing group of players but an even better group of people. Just fantastic resiliency, just chemistry. They put their heart and soul into this journey and I cannot thank them enough. It’s been fantastic.”
Cultural differences: viewing the world through the other person’s cultural lens
Was the US coach over-doing it by stating the obvious, and was the French coach overly negative? Both probably felt equally ecstatic – although each communicated in a way that was natural in their own cultural context, but that might come across as weird from a different cultural perspective.
This post analyzes a fundamental cultural difference between Americans and Europeans that leads to frequent misunderstandings and wrong assumptions about people’s intentions and feelings: how we communicate positive and negative feedback.
I have been living/working in the US for 12 years after growing up in Belgium and working in several European countries, and I have come to realize that people behave pretty similarly on both sides of the Atlantic – once you factor in a very small number of fundamental cultural differences (communication habits being one of them). In all these years I have met the same proportion of optimists vs. pessimists, complainers vs. dreamers, or entrepreneurs vs. safety-seekers in Europe and in the US – despite all stereotypes. However we have very different communication habits, which creates the false impression that “Americans are more optimistic”, “French love to complain”, or that “Germans are more efficient.” We make wrong assumptions about people’s intentions because we interpret their communication through our own cultural lens. Below are some cultural translation cues to avoid making wrong assumptions.
Positive feedback: explicit or implied?
Erin Meyer’s excellent book “The Culture Map” provides suggestions on how differently we express positive feedback:
- In North America (US, Canada) and Northern Europe (eg Germany, The Netherlands), communication is precise, explicit, and clear, with no room for ambiguity – and so is positive feedback. In short: “Say what you mean and mean what you say.” There is often no need for context to understand a message. Leaving out information is considered poor communication or untrustworthy.
- In countries in Southern Europe (eg France, Spain, Italy) and Latin America, communication is more nuanced; the actual message is often implied: you have to read between the lines. Being too explicit can be considered an insult to your intelligence, arrogant, condescending, or simply inappropriate.
Obviously, these differences in communication habits can lead us to make wrong assumptions about people’s intentions when looking at cross-Atlantic communication through our own cultural lens.
Interestingly enough these differences in habits don’t translate perfectly to negative feedback.
Speaking frankly: a gift or a slap in the face? Direct vs. indirect negative feedback
“What do you mean, you haven’t adjusted your behavior? I explicitly asked you so last week! It looks like you are not listening to my feedback.” I was dumbfounded. My American manager was clearly angry, and I didn’t understand why. The week before he had told me that I “may want to consider being less explicit when sharing constructive feedback with colleagues.” As he asked, I had considered it (for a couple of seconds), decided that this wasn’t the right thing to do (if I am less clear, how will people understand and improve?), and forgot about it. But it was clear that my interpretation was wrong. By American standards I was not being clear: I was being rude, and that made my feedback ineffective. At the time I was new to the US and I was painfully learning about cultural differences. “You may want to consider” actually meant “This is an order.” Why was my American manager, otherwise always explicit, not crystal-clear in his negative feedback?
As Erin Meyer states, “people in all cultures believe in constructive criticism. Yet what is considered constructive in one culture may be considered destructive in another.” She sheds light on how we exchange negative feedback:
- Most European cultures prefer direct negative feedback. No sugar-coating. Straight in your face. The reasoning is simple: it is candid, transparent, and clarifies what to improve. Europeans tend to use “linguistic upgraders” to make their point stronger, like “absolutely,” “totally,” or “strongly.”
- In the US (and most of Latin America) it is the exact opposite: negative feedback is often indirect and diplomatic. The reasoning is also simple: what good will it do if my feedback damages our relationship or destroys your self-confidence? Americans tend to use “linguistic downgraders” to soften the criticism, like “kind of,” “slightly,” or “maybe.”
The American cultural exception
Here is what took me years to understand: in the US communication is crystal-clear and explicit about everything EXCEPT about negative feedback. At first, this felt great: I received plenty of clear positive feedback and some vaguely phrased negative feedback that, in my eyes, didn’t mean much – since it was vague. But it also created a false sense of hypocrisy at first, because everything seemed so overly positive in the US. The thing is: Americans are not more positive or hypocritical than others. I had to learn to read between the lines of negative feedback to find the actual, implied message while taking positive feedback at face value.
Reversely this can feel very harsh to Americans dealing with Europeans, because they receive much more direct negative feedback than at home, creating the feeling that Europeans are rude or constantly dissatisfied.
Practically speaking: what can you start doing today?
For Europeans dealing with Americans
- When you receive some vague negative feedback sandwiched between raving positive feedback, listen very intently, because the actual message is the negative feedback. The positive feedback surrounding it is genuine, but consider it as a way to soften the blow, not as a praise song.
- Balance the amount of positive and negative feedback you give. Don’t focus only on negative feedback.
- Be honest and clear in both positive and negative feedback, but don’t provide negative feedback before sharing (honest) positive feedback. Even in the most disastrous situations, there is something positive – find it and share it.
- Explain to your counterpart how you deal with feedback – so that they understand that your “rude” way of giving feedback comes from a place of love.
- Adjust your vocabulary:
- “Not bad” in Europe means “good” in the US.
- “Not the best” in the US means “bad” in Europe.
For Americans dealing with Europeans
- Discard the linguistic upgraders (e.g. “absolutely,” “totally,” or “strongly”) in the negative feedback you receive. Take it down a notch.
- Read between the lines of the minimalistic-sounding positive feedback you receive, especially in Southern Europe. Taking your counterparts out for lunch or dinner will help you build a personal connection and learn to read between those lines.
- Try not to make assumptions about Europeans’ intentions when they share direct negative feedback: they don’t want to be rude, they just want to help – yet they communicate it in ways that may sound awkward to you.
As a business growth coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. When they do business between the US and Europe, cultural differences and long distances make these roadblocks even more painful – hence the need for a robust management system so they can grow their business faster and with less pain. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
“My company has lots of potential, but I just feel my employees are not engaged. If I don’t push, nothing seems to happen. I’m working night and day and we’re still missing 40% of our targets. I once dreamed of being a firefighter, I guess that dream has come true. All I do is put out fires, I have no time to focus on my business.”
Sound familiar? CEOs and leadership teams can change this picture, it’s all about accountability. Creating a fierce culture of accountability starts with the CEO and leadership team.
Why is accountability important?
Accountability is about owning a problem. You want employees to behave as if they own the piece of business that they are running. When you are accountable for a specific result, you will do whatever it takes to achieve it – and you would like your team to perform this way as well.
Carlos Brito, the CEO of brewing company AB Inbev, summarizes his views on accountability in these words: “We always compare that to a rental car: you drive a rental car in a different way than your own car. With a rental car someone else will live with the consequences of your driving. With your car, you know that it will be yours the next days, months, and years, and you know that you will be living with the consequences of your driving. Employees who behave like owners are here for the long term, and they will live with the consequences of their decisions – good or bad – and that builds a great company.”
Why am I having accountability issues?
Accountability issues are very common among growing companies. When you founded your company, you were personally accountable for everything. As your company grew you started delegating the responsibilities for some results – e.g. production, customer service, or sales. However, you may not have created the communication channels required to hold your teams accountable. Why would you? You didn’t need any of this yourself, and yet you grew your business successfully. Why would these smart managers need anything different?
For one, your employees are not you. If they were, they would not be working for you: they would start their own business. Second, your company is now more complex than we you started: it has more people involved, and all these people now need to be on the same page. Third, when you started your company with a few employees, you could be on top of each of them and had short communication lines: you knew what everybody was doing, all the time. Now that your company has more employees it is impossible for you to manage them the same way: this would soak up all your time. This is exactly why you need to put a system in place that will achieve what you want (ie create accountability), without you spending all your time on it.
1. Lead by example
Like many aspects related to company culture, accountability starts with you and your leadership team. In order to create a culture of accountability you have to model the behaviors that you want to see in your organization. When it comes to accountability the rule is simple: when you make a commitment as a leader, you have to keep it. If you don’t, why should anyone else be interested in doing so? You can’t complain that employees miss their deadlines if you are occasionally late as well. As a CEO “all eyes and ears within your business are focused on you. What you say and what you do are invisibly and constantly observed, scrutinized and evaluated as your managers and employees are looking for clues as to how they should behave,” explains Mark Green.
Leading by example is not only about you sticking to your commitments, but also about your expectations from your team – and your behavior when your managers don’t meet your expectations. If your team members notice that there are no consequences for missing targets, why would they try their best? Similarly, if you tolerate one of your team members to produce poor results, why would other team members feel pressured to produce quality? When you hold your team to a higher standards, you are sending a strong signal across the organization.
2. Have the right people on the right seat
Without the right people on the right seat, nothing of what you can do will significantly increase accountability. The key question is: would you enthusiastically rehire everybody on your team? I advise my clients to assess employees on two dimensions; performance and adherence to company values. You will find more information on how to use this tool in this article.
Once you have the right people on your team you need to clarify their area of accountability. This is less obvious than it looks. The key question is: Who is accountable for each of the key functions in your company? As Mark Green explains “the exercise often reveals that there isn’t a single individual accountable for each function. When more than one person is “accountable”, nobody is accountable. It is easy to make assumptions that things will get done, but when there is not a designated person to account for a particular result, chances are, it is not going to happen. In this kind of environment, it is also easy to point fingers – Bob thought Mary would handle it, and vice versa. Other times, you’ll discover that a particular role hasn’t been filled by anyone at all; it is just implied that it will somehow be handled. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t!”
3. Clarify priorities
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” wrote best-selling author Stephen Covey. “Individuals or organizations with too many priorities have no priorities and risk spinning their wheels and accomplishing nothing of significance,” says Verne Harnish in his book “Scaling Up.” Focus on a small number of priorities that will have the biggest impact on your goals, make sure that everyone on your leadership team is aligned on them – and communicate them broadly.
When employees understand where your organization is going and which role they play in it, they work less selfishly and they tend to make better business decisions on behalf of the company – simply because they can see the impact of their decisions and how they impact overall results.
4. Define clear action plans and metrics
Once you have identified who on the leadership team is accountable for each function and what your top priorities are, the next step is for each of your leaders to answer Mark Green’s key question: “What are the 3 most important results the company expects you deliver in exchange for paying your salary – and how should these results be measured? This step determines the results and metrics for each of your leadership functions. As we all know, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. If you want to increase the speed and quality of a particular service you offer, you should establish specific metrics to gauge those factors and identify metrics and targets for them. You may determine if you reach or surpass a target for three months in a row, you have achieved that objective.” Pick specific metrics, make sure that your leadership team is on the same page and that everybody aims for the clearly defined results – so that the rest of your organization can follow your lead.
Similarly, once you have defined top quarterly priorities, the question becomes: what do you and your team need to do in each of the next 13 weeks in order to achieve priorities? There are only 13 weeks in a quarter – if you do NOT view your quarter as a 13-week race, you will lose weeks and time which you will NOT get back. A weekly plan clarifies what can be expected every week, in order to meet expectations at the end of the quarter. It also makes it much easier for your leadership team to hold people accountable to their own 13-week plan.
5. Establish a metronome-like meeting rhythm
Just as a metronome calls time and sets tempo in a musical performance, so do a small set of consistently executed meetings to hold you and your team accountable, and keep everyone on the same page. The essential regular meetings are:
- Daily huddles (no more than 10 to 15 minutes) to evaluate progress on the very short-term priorities and identify any blocking issues.
- Weekly huddles (no more than 90 minutes) to review the status of the 13-week plan and course-correct if needed.
- Monthly and quarterly meetings to review progress on the priorities, take corrective actions when needed, and identify new priorities for the upcoming quarter.
I often notice that the most impactful meetings to drive accountability are the daily and weekly huddles: they create peer pressure and hence take the heat off your shoulders as the leader. They also improve communication: You won’t need to have the same water-cooler conversation three of four times, as is the case when you rely on chance hallway meetings for communication. And finally they enable collective intelligence to solve problems.
In the end, how much difference do these tools make on accountability? Pretty big, as this example from another Gravitas Impact business coach, Glen Dall, demonstrates in Mark Green’s book “Creating a Culture of Accountability”: “I worked with the CEO of a multi-location dental practice. The CEO had started with one practice that they grew very successfully – and then began expanding. At one point employee turnover rates increased to 200%. The leadership team would plan and set goals, but frequently failed to achieve them. The growth rate was declining. The CEO felt over-extended, frustrated and stressed.”
With the leadership team Glen Dall leveraged these tools to have the right people on the right seat, set priorities and targets, as well as establish a proven system to follow up on them. The result? “After our first 6 months of working together, the CEO told me, “You should be proud of how far you’ve brought the team. I feel that we have accomplished more in the past 6 months than we were able in the last 7 years.” That is the power of accountability.”
As a business growth coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. Often their roadblocks include a lack of accountability: they have no system in place to regularly follow up on their team’s many commitments, or their teams don’t have clear priorities and metrics. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
What about you? How accountable is your team? How has Covid impacted accountability? Over the past couple of years, how many quarters has your company reached and missed their targets? What were the consequences of hitting targets, and what were the consequences of missing them? Do you have clear metrics and regular meetings in place to follow up on each of your priorities?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.