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How to tell people they underperform in different cultures?

Wednesday June 25th, 2014

A few years ago I facilitated a training for a multinational, preparing middle managers for how to deal with the upcoming performance management interviews with their employees. It had been a particularly difficult year for the company, and management wanted to make sure that the performance discussions were done in a fair and professional way.

Most of the managers in the room led virtual teams, where team members were residing at various locations in the world. The matrix structure the organization was built on resulted in direct reporting lines in the countries, with indirect reporting lines to international project leaders or functional managers. The training went well, although many critical questions came up which all had to do with the way the process would be run across the borders. Managers clearly were worried about the cultural aspects playing a role. Their 3 main objections against the ‘rules’ of performance management were:

  • PerformMgtI do not have any power to set the objectives of my people. This is done locally, although the local managers have no clue about the details of this project and what we aim to achieve” (Chinese manager)
  • I have underperformance issues in my team, and I know how to deal with that here in the US. But addressing the underperformance of somebody in Asia I think would be very rude and who am I to deliver the bad news to some of these guys far away?” (German manager)
  • The process for performance management is over-organized and way too rigid. I mean, how can we set objectives this clearly and expecting them to last for a year? Things can change tomorrow. Many things outside our influence can happen, and then the objectives and deadlines don’t mean much anymore” (Indian manager)

These objections – although meaningful already within their own cultural context – will be recognized by many people working in a global environment. These are the barriers that keep us away from doing what needs to be done: in this case managing performance, which is a key task of every manager. Do the managers have a point in raising these difficulties? No. If I were the manager of these managers I would have a response to each of them:

  • Why not? Objectives are objectives; whatever country you work in or whatever structures you operate in. You do not need formal authority to set objectives. You need to influence and get results without authority, which all depends on how you use your interpersonal skills to communicate the objectives to your people, whether you are their formal boss or not
  • Why not? Underperformance is underperformance; it is your responsibility to address it. Tolerating it is harming the company you work for; bite the bullet and do it”
  • “Why not? Deadlines are deadlines. We need to stick to these, otherwise the project delays. That’s what deadlines are for. The unexpected is not a reason to not meet your targets. Don’t find excuses: make it work”

These are the right responses to the objections the manager’s raised. Nevertheless, I realized that I answered the manager’s questions from my own cultural perspective. Headquarter language.

dialogueHeadquarters in Europe had again defined the process, heavily influenced by the American style of (performance) management they were still getting used to themselves. Nobody at headquarters had spent time thinking about how to deal with performance management in different countries of the world. Of course you can define objectives, address underperformance and make people meet deadlines. But in every region or culture you will need to do this in a different way: if you want performance management to successfully contribute to the organization objectives, it will need to work locally.

International managers – and certainly managers of people with different cultural backgrounds – need to understand the cultural implications for:

  • Setting targets. In some cultures goal setting is the task of the manager; the employee receives the targets without questioning and starts working on the tasks. He expects to receive clear instructions from his manager on what to do. In other cultures employees expect to have influence on ther own targets, and expect a dialogue with the manager. They only want the manager to set the high-level objectives, and they expect to have the freedom to achieve the objectives in the way they themselves think this should be done. After all: what does the manager know about the details of the work processes?The performance dialogue. In some cultures employees expect a dialogue with their manager where both have a say in the final performance rating. The talk about performance is a real dialogue. Some other cultures really do not understand this concept (although they will politely tell you they do, and they will nod and cooperate with you in a friendly way: after all you are the manager, and you are from headquarters). In these cultures employees expect a one-way discussion: the manager telling them how well they did, and what their performance rating is. The question “So what do you think about your performance last year?” will be received with disbelief, and aswered with some meaningless generalities.
  • two-people-talkingThe performance dialogue. In some cultures employees expect a dialogue with their manager where both have a say in the final performance rating. The talk about performance is a real dialogue. Some other cultures really do not understand this concept (although they will politely tell you they do, and they will nod and cooperate with you in a friendly way: after all you are the manager, and you are from headquarters). In these cultures employees expect a one-way discussion: the manager telling them how well they did, and what their performance rating is. The question “So what do you think about your performance last year?” will be received with disbelief, and aswered with some meaningless generalities.
  • Dealing with underperformance. In most Western cultures, the way to deal with underperformance is quite direct. Textbooks tell you to address underperformance in an early stage, be very clear on what you are dissatisfied about, and tell the employee exactly when and how you want to see improvement. There are many cultures – mostly the collectivistic ones – where you are expected to deal with underperformance in a very different way. The manager is expected to indirectly address this, saying a lot of friendly words about the issue as well. Where the Western manager will say: “Your sales are behind; you are not good at following up customer questions and you stay far behind in generating new leads”, the manager in a collectivistic country (where communication is less direct) will say “It was a difficult year for sales. We all worked very hard – you as well – and it is challenging to meet the numbers. I guess also for you it was a bit dificult to find new leads.” In the latter case you say the same, but in an indirect way. The employee receiving this message will know what to do, but loss of face is avoided.

There is much more to say about managing performance in an international context. My upcoming book ‘Managing through a Mirror – Successful Business Communication where Cultures Meet” has an entire chapter devoted to Managing Performance across cultural boundaries. Register to receive updates on the release date of the book (September 2014) at here.

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