Cross cultural performance reviews


Dilbert’s 10/13/1996 comic strip

This is that time of the year, atleast in my part of the world. There are emails floating around, with Managers asking stakeholders for performance feedback reviews on their team members.

It’s Annual performance review; considered a necessary evil by most organisations. The truth is nobody wants to give feedback and nobody wants to receive a clinical review if their performance.
In my view, judging performance is personal. How I rate my work can be drastically different how someone else sees it.
But we continue to do the Annual performance reviews, have the discussion, assign a rating, fit into a bell curve – an exercise that probably just makes, if at all, 10% of the organisation happy.

Companies have tried to make this process easier – converting performance objectives into tangible items that can be measured easily. But the line between the objective and the subjective, in this area, is thin.

As businesses strive for excellence, it is not a job done, but a job well done that matters.

It is not the number of calls, but number of calls that resolved the customer issue; not mere sales targets, but targets that resulted in repeat business or fetched more margins.
Objective measures are more and more reviewed in the light of quality of their outcomes, blurring the line between the objective and the subjective.

And then, there is the layer of cultural differences and how that shapes one’s definition of good performance vs bad performance, the observation that triggered this writing.

I am guilty (as most of us are) of rating people as assertive (or not) and demonstrating leadership skills (or lacking).
But as I observed how people from other cultures react to the same traits I was assessing, I realised that we all make judgements that are culturally driven.
Some cultures just don’t communicate the way western corporates world communicates. And, just like not being punctual is acceptable and quite common in India, there could be other practices that are perfectly tolerable which could leave one bewildered.

For example, a colleague of mine runs a team in that part of the world where taking a sick leave and posting pictures of a family picnic on Facebook is perfectly normal. My Australian Manager would cringe at that and may ask for medical certificates before one to avail sick leave.

So, how does one navigate this and make performance feedback effective?

Here are some tips that work for me:

1. Be aware of cultural differences
Just being conscious of the different cultural backgrounds often opens up ways to work effectively across virtual teams.

2. Make the conversation outcome based
Clearly state the end outcome you need to reach together as a team. Discuss basic rules to work with, but learn to trust and let go. In spite of cultural difference, desire do to a good job is inherent to all human beings, so people will usually strive to deliver what you ask of them. Assess based on what they delivered and if it was delivered on time. Suspend judgements on how it was delivered and review the “how” with an open mind with a wide berth for cultural differences.

3. Discuss with colleagues from the same culture
If you find a particular behaviour inappropriate or annoying, discuss that with someone else from the same cultural background. You are most likely to gain new insights that expand your understanding.

4. Finally, don’t wait till the annual review cycle to start!
Reflecting on a whole year’s performance while under the pressure of the curve is hardly ideal. Instead, do periodic reviews of how the relationship is working and make minor tweaks to your management/ working style and also your perceptions.

If you would like dive a little deeper into this subject, there is a lot of literature out there on this subject, ranging from SHRM’s technical sounding paper to a more practical listing of factors to consider in here.


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