Performance Reviews

How to Conduct Performance Reviews for Multilingual Teams

August 18, 2023
March 8, 2024
Catherine Tansey
Lattice Team

Imagine that you’re an experienced manager from the US who is now leading a larger team at a multinational corporation. You’ve taken a promotion that puts you in Europe, heading up a team of mostly French and German individuals. 

When it’s time for your one-on-ones, you start by talking about wins but then move on to where employees could be improving. At each biweekly check-in, you go to great lengths to discuss the changes you’d like to see in their performance, after sharing a few examples of what they’ve been doing well. Despite your feedback, nothing seems to change. 

When it comes time for performance reviews, you’re honest that many employees haven’t implemented feedback, despite numerous discussions directing a change in their performance. You later learn that your team members are furious — and confused. Why would you have told them how great their performance was, if only to give them a poor performance rating during the appraisal process

The case is simple: one of cross-cultural misunderstanding. 

While it’s common practice in the US to soften critical feedback by first sharing accolades, French and German cultures are forthright and frank with what needs to change. In highlighting strengths first and then going on to briefly mention opportunities to improve, your direct reports heard glowing feedback and gathered that their performance was on par. 

Below we look more closely at the ways cultural and linguistic differences generate friction in the workplace, and how HR teams and managers can use cultural awareness for more effective employee performance management and evaluation. 

Challenges of Global Performance Management

Managing a team across countries and cultures comes with various challenges. In addition to the existing hurdles of remote performance management — like the inability to read body language and difficulty scheduling across time zones — global teams face other challenges, such as the lack of a shared mother tongue. 

Just because many multinational companies use English as the lingua franca to conduct business doesn’t mean employees will speak and understand English like native speakers. Managers should limit their use of idiomatic language and jargon to facilitate better communication on multilingual teams.

Even if global teams collaborate in English, they’re still composed of individuals operating on beliefs, habits, and defaults that fundamentally differ from those of their colleagues.

While two native English speakers will likely understand what’s meant when they hear, “I want to make sure we’re all seeing eye-to-eye here: There’s a lot of pressure to get the ball rolling this quarter, and we’re really going to have to go the extra mile,” the message will not be clear for those without a near-native language level. As a manager conducting performance reviews on multilingual teams, eliminating idioms will be key to clear communication. 

Even if global teams collaborate in English, they’re still composed of individuals operating on beliefs, habits, and defaults that fundamentally differ from those of their colleagues and manager. 

This diversity of thought, experience, and worldview is part of what gives multinational enterprises a competitive advantage on the world stage, but for managers, the cultural nuances can make performance management and performance evaluations a unique challenge. 

How Culture Affects Business, in Eight Scales

Cultures vary across a number of different business dimensions. Erin Meyer, professor at the global business school INSEAD, and author of The Culture Map, distills these differences into eight scales in her best-selling book where she compares some of the world’s largest economies to one another. The eight scales Meyer lists are: communicating, evaluating, persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing, and scheduling

While all eight of the dimensions affect the way work gets done and how colleagues build relationships, communicating, evaluating, and leading have an outsized impact on performance reviews, so we will discuss these in more detail below.

  • Communicating: low-context vs. high-context. Cultures sit along a spectrum between low-context and high-context communication. Low-context cultures are explicit and transparent with verbal and written communication, like the US and Australia. In high-context cultures, like Japan and Vietnam, individuals leverage an ecosystem of context clues to derive or communicate messages.

  • Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback. Some cultures are comfortable with extremely direct negative feedback, like the Dutch, German, or French, while others prefer to deliver the message more indirectly, perhaps softening it with words like “a little bit,” or “possibly.” In the US, negative feedback is often wrapped between two pieces of positive feedback. Other cultures prefer to retain harmony and not mention constructive feedback at all, using context clues instead to get the message across, like in China or Japan.

  • Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical. Egalitarian cultures favor leadership styles that keep the power distance between bosses and subordinates low. In these cultures, the best boss is more of a facilitator than a commander. Hierarchical cultures have a high power distance between boss and subordinates and expect the boss to be a strong and authoritative leader.

Tailoring Management's Approach to Leading

Great cross-cultural managers are curious about the idiosyncratic cultural lens through which their employees interact. After making themselves aware of the cultural makeup of their team, they ask themselves, “In light of this information, how can I best tailor my approach to be more effective?”

For example, a manager from a culture that favors direct constructive feedback, like the Netherlands, who is working with a culture that prefers less direct negative feedback, like the UK, could soften their message by using “downgraders” to deliver feedback.

Instead of informing an employee that their presentation was “completely disappointing” and “absolutely unacceptable” — language the Dutch are quite comfortable using and receiving in the workplace — they may say, “I’d like to share a few small observations. I thought that you could have possibly prepared a bit more for that presentation. I noticed that you had to refer back to your notes several times as you spoke, which may have affected your ability to engage the board members.” 

Managers [leading] teams with people from different cultures serve themselves to think about not only where the employee is coming from, but what informs their values.

Using words like “a bit” and “possibly” will help the Dutch manager get their message across to a British audience.

“Communication is really key to global performance management, and from where a lot of challenges arise,” said ​​Kenric Tsethlikai, Ph.D., managing director of the Lauder Institute, where he oversees the joint MBA/MA in international studies at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

“Many employees report that there's a lot of room for improvement in receiving established clear performance goals and feedback and being effectively coached in the process. So we know de facto that managers could improve communication in the performance appraisal process,” he added. 

How to Support Cross-Cultural Managers During Reviews 

1. Help managers understand the cultural makeup of their team. 

Work with managers to build a better cultural competency of the team they are leading. 

Eva Gaborikova, a cross-cultural executive coach and consultant for over 15 years, says supporting managers in becoming culturally competent will have a greater impact than trying to identify a single methodology for global performance management systems.

“What’s most important is that the leader who delivers feedback has real cultural intelligence, which means they’re able to adapt their communication and feedback style to the culture they’re in touch with,” she said. 

Better cultural competency enables managers to communicate more effectively and provide better performance feedback and also helps managers understand what motivates an employee’s behavior. 

“Managers who are leading teams with people from very different cultures serve themselves to think about not only where the employee is coming from, but what informs their values,” said ​​Tsethlikai. 

Source: Erin Meyer, The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, 2014. Cultural patterns of behavior affect the way we conduct business. Professor and author Erin Meyer distills these differences into an eight-scale model. 

HR managers can start with Meyer’s suggestion in The Culture Map to map the cultural matrices across the eight business dimensions. This visual will give managers an at-a-glance understanding of how their own culture differs from that of direct reports. From there, managers can take steps to adapt their approach to performance review conversations for their global team members.

2. Create standardized performance review processes. 

Structure creates expectations. As Andy Molinsky and Ernest Gundling wrote in a Harvard Business Review article on building trust in cross-cultural teams, “Multicultural team members benefit from knowing what type of information they will receive when, and from having a regular rhythm.”

Create templates for managers for each of these activities and ensure managers and employees have a designated place to track and record progress, like in a performance management dashboard

3. Get outside help.

If your human resources team doesn’t have direct experience and training in navigating cross-cultural work environments, consider seeking outside help to develop more globally attuned managers. 

Gaborikova explained that companies will often pull in a cross-cultural consultant to train senior management before high-stakes negotiations, but it’s beneficial from a retention perspective to work with a consultant on internal business teams, too. 

The term 'multicultural' isn’t a monolith. How managers tailor their performance management practices [depends] entirely on the culture employees come from.

Cultural misunderstandings can wreak havoc. “People leave teams all the time because of failures in how feedback has been delivered, or how a manager has tried to motivate them, and so on, and those are employees that could have otherwise continued to make a great contribution to the company,” Gaborikova said. 

“If a company would like to facilitate management of global teams in a way that’s tailored to the needs and values of their employees, they should really enlist a cross-cultural consultant,” Gaborikova added.

Performance Review Best Practices for Multinational Teams

The term “multicultural” isn’t a monolith. How managers tailor their performance management practices to global employees depends entirely on the culture employees come from.

East Asian cultures tend to have near-opposite styles of talent management, exchanging feedback, providing and taking direction, and managing performance, than those coming from the West, like Germany or Canada. 

While a culture-specific approach is best, there are a few performance review best practices managers and global human resources teams can incorporate into their appraisal process in general.

1. Use low-context communication.

Multicultural teams can take many shapes. For managers living abroad as expatriates managing a team of locals, best practice is for the manager to adopt the national culture and practices of their host country. For most other makeups of multicultural teams, it can be helpful to adopt low-context practices, according to Meyer. Low-context practices are rooted in transparency, clarity, and explicitness, and they create a common ground for the best chance of effective understanding among teams and between parties. 

Take the time to explain to team members why you’ll be managing performance as such by saying something like, “We all know that we have a multicultural team, and that’s fantastic for the diversity of thought and experience it brings for us, but it can make communication challenging. To that end, we are going to create norms around clear, transparent, and explicit communication so we can make sure we understand one another.” 

Before performance reviews, remind employees that the team has adopted low-context communication, and give an example of what that might look like during performance. You could say, “In advance of our upcoming performance reviews, I wanted to take a moment to remind everyone that our team has opted for very clear and transparent communication. During your upcoming performance review, I expect that we’ll both be ready to have a frank discussion about performance as well as goals for the future.” 

In leveraging multiple opportunities for feedback, managers can more easily adjust their approach for cultures that favor indirect constructive feedback, too.

2. Create multiple opportunities for feedback.

Annual reviews or even biannual reviews should not be the only time feedback is shared. Leverage other channels, too, like one-on-ones and ad-hoc feedback, so you aren’t relying on written review comments alone. 

This strategy works for cultures across the spectrum of communication and feedback preferences. For example, sharing feedback often is a staple of direct and explicit cultures like the US or the UK, where feedback is routinely reiterated and underscored. 

In leveraging multiple opportunities for feedback, managers can more easily adjust their approach for cultures that favor indirect constructive feedback, too. “In most Asian societies, it is best to give feedback gradually. This does not mean you beat the direct message in periodically, again and again. Rather it means that you make small references to the changes that need to be made gently, gradually building a clear picture as to what should be done differently,” Meyer wrote in The Culture Map.

3. Set and measure OKRs. 

Using goals or OKRs on multicultural teams confers a host of benefits. For one, the ability to see and track progress on a previously agreed-upon metric can help override the cultural differences in leadership style. Say a manager coming from a hierarchical culture like Brazil is struggling with her Danish direct reports. Famously egalitarian, the Danes carry this into their business culture and management dynamics, too, working independently with little need (or want) for input from the boss. 

Hailing from the more-hierarchical Brazil, the manager feels shut out from the employee's day-to-day work and is uncomfortable not knowing how her team is spending their time. 

By leveraging OKRs as a way to meet goals and also as a management style, the manager can stay informed of her team’s progress without impinging on the Danes’ independent approach to work. “In this way, you become a facilitator rather than a supervisor while still keeping a handle on what is being accomplished,” noted Meyer. 

“Managers should reflect prior to the actual meeting, the performance appraisal, to think about the strategic priorities for the teams they are in charge of,” said Tsethlikai. “Then use those priorities and those goals to frame the expectations so that [the performance review] becomes a collaborative conversation about what the organization is trying to accomplish as well as the employee’s role in that,” he added. 

The cultures we come from intrinsically affect how we judge individual performance and what we deem to be appropriate, strategic, and effective in the workplace. For managers heading up global business units, developing the cultural competence of the individuals on your team is essential. In addition, turning to a comprehensive performance management system, like Lattice, will enable managers to exchange feedback with ease and set and track performance metrics, so that managers and employees are on the same page.

Lattice is available in French, Canadian French, German, and UK English. To see our global performance management software in action, schedule a free demo.