When I worked for Citibank in the eighties as a young professional, I used to tell my friends that the corporate culture in Citibank taught me to be rude. In those days, Citibank was known to be aggressive and even arrogant, and one survived only by adapting to this rough-and-tumble environment.
Corporate cultures have become more genteel since then, with some exceptions (e.g., GE, Apple and the now-defunct Enron). The broader culture of the U.S. has also become more polite, except perhaps in some pockets of New York City. In many parts of corporate America, workplace civility has ruled, although the pendulum may have swung too far in this direction, with many individuals in organizations holding back on their criticism. Managers who undergo training on giving feedback are sometimes taught to use a sandwich approach; that is, make sure that any negative feedback they provide is sandwiched between two positive comments, one prior to the negative feedback and the other after delivering the negative feedback.
While executives at some organizations are encouraging more people to “speak up,” there are still far too many organizations where employees are afraid to do so for fear that they will be punished for their candor. And there continue to be bosses who are mean-spirited jerks, as Sutton (2007) has written about extensively.
A recent Wall Street Journal article has pointed out that candor may be making a comeback: “Companies from Deutsch Inc. to hedge fund Bridgewater Associates are pushing workers to drop the polite workplace veneer and speak frankly to each other no matter what. The practice is referred to at some companies as ‘radical candor,’ a ‘mokita’ or ‘front-stabbing.’ ”
Ironically, the explosion of social media has led to an outburst of vitriol, sarcasm and hostile comments especially from anonymous sources. Just read online comments on any political issue, on celebrities’ doings, and even book, movie or product reviews, and you immediately get the feeling that there is a parallel universe going on online where incivility seems to have few boundaries.
What is going on, and what can managers and organizations do about it? I believe that there are at least two mistaken assumptions that are made regarding the tension between candor or directness on the one hand, and politeness or workplace civility on the other. The first assumption is that being rude, uncivil or nasty is simply part of being candid or direct. American comedians like the late Joan Rivers and Don Rickles became popular with their vicious put-downs of others, including members of the audience. The Republican candidate for U.S. president Donald Trump reflects this with his continuous insults of his opponents.
Sue is a manager in a chemical plant who believes in “telling it like it is” to the point of berating her direct reports in front of others in the guise of being candid and direct. If she perceives that they are not getting the job done, she jumps on them like a drill sergeant and confronts them directly, letting them know in no uncertain terms what she thinks they are doing wrong. Fred, on the other hand, is a supervisor for a consumer products company who has just been promoted and manages seven direct reports who have been in the organization much longer than he has. He often hesitates to tell them what’s on his mind especially with regard to any performance problems he sees because he is afraid of hurting their feelings and demoralizing them.
Neither belief is helpful to the organization or to the individuals involved. Feedback is essential to the motivation, performance and productivity of individuals, teams and organizations. Withholding feedback for fear of offending others or hurting their feelings is not helpful. At the same time, giving feedback that so offends others is counterproductive. Over time, managers will most likely create a climate where individuals withhold information, lose respect for their managers, and become disengaged from the organization. According to a study by Porath and Pearson (2013), among workers who have been on the receiving end of incivility: 78% said that their commitment to the organization declined, 66% said that their performance declined, 48% intentionally decreased their work effort, and 38% intentionally decreased the quality of their work.
Steve Jobs was known not only for being direct, but also being extremely blunt. He was criticized by some for his withering and no-holds-barred comments as being too insensitive to others. In a story about his chief industrial designer at Apple Jonathan Ive (Parker 2015), Ive recalls that when he protested to Jobs, Steve replied: “Why would you be vague?” He actually argued that ambiguity (or indirectness) was a form of selfishness: “You don’t care how they feel! You’re being vain, you want them to like you.” (p. 126) Ive finally concluded that Jobs did not mean to be hurtful and just wanted to make sure he gave clear, unambiguous feedback. The assumption that Jobs had, like many in the Western world, is that the best way to communicate clearly is by being direct, and that being direct includes being blunt and at times nasty.
The second mistaken assumption is that being direct or candid is universally more effective than being indirect. However, there is a significant body of research in the cross-cultural management literature indicating otherwise. Some cultures such as Australia and Israel encourage managers to get straight to the point. Earley and Erez (1997), for example, state that “Israelis are most likely to tell each other directly, and very explicitly, what they have in mind, even when it may lead to a confrontation.” In other cultures such as in several East Asian countries, messages are more subtle and indirect. What is implied is more important than what is actually stated. People in these cultures place a great deal of emphasis on nonverbal communication. The anthropologist Edward Hall (2013) suggested that societies differ in their degree of context when communicating. He refers to context as “the nature of how meaning is constructed differently across cultures using different ratios of context and information.”
Luc Minguet, a French national who is head of Group Purchasing for Michelin, described his observations while he was in the U.S. as COO of Michelin’s truck business unit (Minguet 2014):
“In France, we focus on identifying what’s wrong with someone’s performance. It’s considered unnecessary to mention what’s right. What’s good is taken as given. A French employee knows this and reacts accordingly. But for a U.S. employee, as I discovered, it is devastating, because Americans tend to sugarcoat one negative with a lot of positives. French managers get their wires crossed. When they get what sounds like glowing feedback from an American boss, they think they’re superstars. Of course, when they don’t get the big pay raise they expected after the great review, they’re bitterly disappointed!”
Eduardo, a Brazilian expatriate working in Thailand, remembers a time when his project team was late on a key project milestone. He sent an e-mail to the team in what he thought was a polite message, reminding them that the project was at risk of falling behind schedule, and asking everyone to pay increased attention. He later learned that his e-mail was perceived as both “rude and pushy.” He learned to soften his approach, for example, by asking questions such as “Will you help me with …?”
When Julia, an American expatriate assigned to Germany, gave her first presentation to her German boss, he said to her very directly, “Don’t take it personal; this report isn’t organized well. Talk to me again when it’s ready.” In the U.S., according to her, she would have received very polite feedback, and would probably have heard something like this: “Here are the ten things that are good about this report; however, it would make me more comfortable if you added this.” The bluntness of the Germans, in contrast to the watered-down feedback from Americans, was a difficult adjustment for Julia to make.
Sanchez-Burks and his colleagues (2003) have suggested that this directness is related to “relational concerns,” and in a series of experiments, have shown cultural variations on this variable. They explain the relative absence of relational concerns (at least historically) in America to the influence of Calvinist theology, which tended to stress the importance of limiting social-emotional and interpersonal concerns at work. In one of their studies, they examined how Americans and East Asians interpreted indirect messages in a work setting. They found that Europeans and Americans tended to make more errors than East Asians in indirect cues.
According to Bill Bryson (1990), English has about 200,000 words in common use, while French has 100,000. Perhaps because Americans are relatively more direct (although not as much as the Germans) and low-context, they need a larger vocabulary to explain more clearly what they mean. Meyer (2014) points out that many French words have multiple meanings, and the listener has to make an effort to understand the intention of the speaker.
In other cultures, where loss of face is very important, effective managers have learned to be more indirect especially when giving feedback in order to preserve harmony. Comfort and Franklin (2014) refer to “blurring techniques” that managers can use to soften the harshness of providing negative feedback. For example, they suggest talking about a hypothetical case to direct the feedback receiver’s attention to the problem rather than confronting the individual directly.
Here are two important points to remember for managers and global leaders. First, you can be direct and candid without being nasty, uncivil or impolite. This does require you to be more mindful in what you say to others, and how you say it. It also means that you need to practice different approaches to communicating with others that does not require being direct and confrontational. Second, be aware of cultural norms especially when interacting with colleagues and customers from other countries, and adapt your communication style accordingly. In some cultures, you may in fact need to be even more direct than what you may be used to. Remember that your goal as a manager is to enhance the motivation and performance of your team, and the communication style you use needs to fit the particular situation.
Bryson, B. (1990). The Mother Tongue – and How It Got That Way. New York: William Morrow.
Comfort, J. and Franklin, P. (2014). The Mindful International Manager: How to Work Effectively Across Cultures. United Kingdom: Kogan Page.
Earley, C. and Erez, M. (1997). The Transplanted Executive. New York: Oxford University Press.
Feintzerg, R. (2015). When ‘Nice’ Is a Four-Letter Word, Wall Street Journal, December 31.
Meyer, E. (2014). The Culture Map. New York: Public Affairs.
Minguet, Luc. 2014. Creating a Culturally Sensitive Corporation. Harvard Business Review, 92 (9): 78.
Parker, I. (2015). Jonathan Ive and the Future of Apple. The New Yorker, February 23, 2015.
Porath, C. and Pearson, C. (2013). The Price of Incivility. Harvard Business Review, 91 (1/2),114-119.
Sanchez-Burks, J., Lee, F., Choi, I., Nisbett, R., Zhao, S., and Koo, J. (2003). Conversing Across Cultures: East-West Communication Styles in Work and Nonwork Contexts. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85 (2): 363–372.
Sutton, R. (2007). Building a Civilized Workplace. The McKinsey Quarterly, 47-55.