When Crossing Cultures, Don’t Forget Praise

When her first employees quit, Stephanie Muller didn’t think much of it. To Stephanie, a German-born marketing executive for a global engineering company in the U.S., these were underperforming employees, and she was fine to see them go. But when a key sales rep left, and then three weeks later, a marketing manager took off with little warning, Stephanie really started to worry. Was she not paying enough? Were the assignments mundane? Was the competition poaching her best employees?

It was none of these things, as it turns out. The compensation was fine, and the assignments were interesting. The problem was that because of her own cultural background, Stephanie wasn’t accustomed to offering praise to her employees: to tell them that they did good work and that she appreciated the efforts. It seems like something very easy to do, but where Stephanie came from in Germany, it was very unusual to offer such praise to employees. German bosses certainly appreciated their employees, but they were not accustomed to praise them for their work in the way that Americans are typically praised. In Germany, you’re expected to do your job, and when you do, you don’t need to be praised for it, unless it’s for something truly exceptional. In fact, being singled out in this way, especially in a public setting, can be embarrassing. For these reasons, Stephanie didn’t praise her American employees — but unfortunately, that lack of recognition led them to feel underappreciated and ultimately leave the firm.

Given the internationalization of business and the mixing and blending of employees onto cross-cultural teams around the world, managers like Stephanie often have to motivate employees from different countries and cultures. So as a global manager, how can you adapt to a different “praise culture” without losing yourself in the process?

Tip #1: Make sure you actually understand the local cultural norms. It might seem obvious, but it wasn’t to Stephanie. She only learned these cultural differences after her employees started to rebel and leave the firm. Make sure you are proactive in diagnosing the local cultural of praise. A trusted mentor, advisor, or cross-cultural consultant with deep knowledge about both cultures can be an invaluable resource in this regard.

Tip #2: Once you’ve diagnosed the new cultural norms, make sure you’re also aware of your own. Stephanie was from Germany and had an internalized culture of praise that was very characteristic of her native cultural context. In that sense, she was what we might call a “local” manager — with an internalized culture of praise characteristic of a particular cultural setting. That, however, is not always the case. We’ve worked with more cosmopolitan managers who are far more flexible than Stephanie was and who have internalized multiple approaches for praising and recognizing employees. For the local manager, the task is learning to act outside his or her personal and cultural comfort zone. But for these cosmopolitan managers, the task is different: It’s simply matching one of their internalized styles to the particular demands of the situation.

Tip #3: For managers who aren’t cosmopolitan and who haven’t internalized multiple cultures of praise, the key task is to learn to act outside of their personal and cultural comfort zone. That certainly was the case for Stephanie, who eventually learned to praise her employees with an American cultural style. It wasn’t easy — and often isn’t when the way you need to act effectively in a new setting is so different from what you are accustomed to. The trick, we find, is to personalize or customize your approach so you’re effective in the new setting, but you don’t lose yourself in the process.

Stephanie, for example, found it uncomfortable to use stock American phrases like “Great job!” and “Well done!” so she avoided them. Instead, she customized her own approach to offering praise based on detail and specificity — which were important values to her. For example, she would praise employees for very specific elements of their work and for concrete contributions to the team. Interestingly, as she started managing employees from outside the U.S., she further customized her approach by remaining specific and detailed, but then also emphasizing team and group-level accomplishments, which resonated with her employees from collectivist countries like Korea and Mexico. Overall, the key was to find an approach that was in that sweet spot of being authentic to her and motivational to her employees.

Praising employees is a universal — everyone likes to be recognized for excellent work. But the way in which praise is delivered is culturally specific. So learn the praise culture of your local setting and adapt accordingly. The return on your investment will be a motivated and committed multicultural workforce.

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