How do you give negative feedback to a colleague without causing offence?

In her excellent series of talks on intercultural communication, Erin Meyer (link at end) gives the example of a Dutch professional who sent a report to a British colleague for feedback, and vice versa.

The Dutch colleague gave very specific details of problems, with how to fix them. Meanwhile, the British colleague gave a number of small suggestions for how the report might be improved… if the Dutch colleague wanted to. The result? Well, the British guy thought the Dutchman didn’t like him, while the Dutch colleague decided he couldn’t trust his British counterpart with feedback again.

Our English for Effective Communication at Work course often discusses how to give feedback within international teams. How do you give feedback in your culture? Have you noticed any differences between your international colleagues?

In class, we discussed this example, and found that the students had experienced similar situations.

The German students agreed with the Dutchman; direct feedback is important for improvement. The Italian thought the Brit was right; you have to be more subtle with your suggestions. And the Japanese student was just confused: British and Dutch people are both from northwestern Europe, so why are the reactions so different?

In simple terms, it depends on whether a particular culture is low context or high context.

The Netherlands and Germany are both low context cultures, where it’s important to speak directly and give all the necessary information. On the other hand, Britain, Italy and Japan are all high context cultures which use a lot of non-verbal communication and subtle language, and where the emphasis is on the relationship.

So how do you give negative feedback to someone from Britain without causing offence? Try these phrases:

🚫 This report is terrible

This report isn’t quite what I was hoping for

🚫 I don’t like the introduction

The introduction might be even stronger if you changed a couple of things

🚫 Your argument doesn’t make any sense

I don’t quite follow your argument - could you go over it again for me, please?

🚫 You are late again. This is not acceptable

If you wouldn’t mind making sure you’re on time for the next meeting, that would be very helpful

🚫 If you don’t work with your colleagues, you will be fired

I notice you’re finding it difficult to collaborate with your teammates. What can we do to help you to participate more?

Erin Meyer: The Language of Negative Feedback

TED talk by Erin Meyer

Do you need to learn to give feedback delicately? Join our English for Communication at Work course

English for Communication at Work Work & Business English Combination Course