Overcome Cultural Differences With The Right Recognition Training

I often get asked about dealing with recognition in different countries and my experience with teaching people how to get recognition right. 

So, what about cultural differences? Do you have to teach distinct behaviors to people from each country? 

My observations may surprise you. 

Understanding Culture In Different Countries

Culture is the collection of behaviors and traditions common to a group of people. Notice the two factors described there—behaviors and traditions. Both behaviors and traditions are learned and are not inherent in the people from each country. However, you must respect people and their life experiences and invite people to consider practices that will make people motivated and happier.

Geert Hofstede described in his book, Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values, the different values that groups of countries adhere to. Hofstede grouped these different value characteristics into five categories.

  1. Power Distance Index (PDI): Refers to the degree that power differences are accepted and sanctioned, such as having a strong well-defined order or whether equal rights prevail.
  2. Long-Term Orientation (LTO): This variable refers to a society that fosters values related to the future or whether there is a short-term focus.
  3. Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI): This describes different societies’ willingness in dealing with uncertainty or a rigidity in not wanting to change.
  4. Masculinity (MAS): Refers to stereotypic qualities associated with masculinity and male dominance or more feminine values and fluidity in roles.
  5. Individualism (IDV): Describes societies that make and accept individual decisions as the norm versus a more collective mindset, where group decisions are made.

I never expected to come in contact with people from so many countries and different cultural backgrounds. This occurred when I provided training on recognition skills for managers from a Swiss bank in 10 countries, namely: 

  • Austria
  • England
  • France
  • Germany
  • Gibraltar
  • Italy
  • Luxembourg
  • Spain
  • Switzerland
  • United Arab Emirates 

For West European countries like Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, Geert Hofstede’s model would suggest stereotypically classifying them as Low PDI, High LTO, High UAI, High IND, and High MAS. 

Germany, for example, is a highly decentralized country and supported by a strong middle class that favors co-determination of rights. They are an individualistic country favoring parents and children versus extensive use of extended family involvement. Communication is very direct, even if it hurts. On the high masculinity dimension this creates competitive, achievement-oriented people who focus on success, and trying to be the best. Germans want to avoid uncertainty, are rule focused, and rely on strength and expertise to overcome uncertainty. They are long-term thinkers for the future and save and persevere. 

Based on this, it should not surprise you I heard a recognition related quotation from managers in both Switzerland and Germany. Both groups claimed its origin from their respective countries. The managers shared this old German quotation which says, “Nicht geschimpft ist genug gelobt.” Translated directly into English this means, “not being scolded is enough praise.”

Managers from a Germanic culture, with its more rule bound, structured approach, give employees negative, critical feedback on work performance almost all the time. You’re more likely to hear what you did wrong than you will ever hear something positive about your work. If you are not being reamed out for something you did wrong, then that is sufficient recognition.

Overcoming Cultural Challenges To Recognition 

When asked to identify a list of barriers in each of these ten countries, every one of them listed their respective ethnic culture as a challenge. Ironically, Canada and the United States never mention culture as a barrier other than organizational culture, and only when it’s problematic. 

Managers from each of these ten countries learned to use specific behaviors for giving meaningful and effective recognition. I have been able to identify critical behaviors essential for managers, in particular, with giving recognition that resonates with all employees. Follow up with each countries’ managers showed a majority had made positive improvements in their recognition practices and found them beneficial. 

Some of these behaviors included: 

  • Giving specific positive recognition and feedback versus using generalities. 
  • Removing distractions when recognizing people and giving full attention to people. 
  • Using a person’s preferred name as well as pronouncing it properly. 
  • Ensuring that recognition is given to people in a timely manner. 
  • Knowing the differences between recognition and rewards and using them appropriately. 
  • Discovering what people’s recognition preferences are and drawing on them wisely, and many other behaviors.

These are what I call universal behaviors that fit the needs of all employees to be praised, acknowledged, and recognized. Using these types of skills will, mostly, help anyone feel appreciated and valued for their contributions, no matter where they are in the world.  

Mindfulness of Cultural Differences 

Behaviors you will want to be aware of that are not universally accepted are things like,  

Eye Contact: Whether the recipient of recognition makes eye contact with the giver of recognition. For example, with people of Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native American origin, eye contact is thought to be disrespectful or rude. Respect this and follow the example of leaders from these countries rather than asserting your views.

Cultural Norms: Importance of group or team recognition over that of individual recognition. This is where in some cultures they value the group over the individual. Singling someone out for recognition in Japan, India, or China might not be a good idea.

Communication Patterns: Learn another person’s preferred communication patterns. Talk to leaders and Human Resource professionals from these lands to learn typical cultural preferences.

Personal Preferences: Share your preferred communication patterns with others so they may better understand you. Some recognition preferences may be purely personal versus cultural. Asking what is right for people will help prepare you. Respect people’s wishes when they don’t want to receive recognition publicly.

Ethnocentricity: Be careful not to subscribe to any ethnocentric thinking, where you believe your own cultural beliefs and practices are more positive, logical, and natural than others. No one culture is right or wrong—they are all different for various reasons.

Cultural Beliefs: Some traditions can have a superstitious root that can still be critical to respect. In China you would not give a career milestone gift of four glasses. Why? The number four is unlucky because in Chinese the word four sounds a lot like the word for “death.” Like North American buildings sometimes skipping signage of a 13th floor, Chinese buildings often lack a fourth floor. This means you would not hold a celebration event on the 4th of a month.

Economic Considerations: When I was consulting with organizations in India, it was the employees who had a hard time relating to recognition. Their wages were so low that the only method of reinforcement that meant anything to them was being rewarded, and especially with cash. Life itself had a different regard and value in India. I was told several times that if an employee died in an unsafe job, such as construction, there was always someone else who could take their place. 

Draw on the Universal Principle of Respect 

Respect is having a high regard for people, no matter their background, beliefs, or qualities. Respect is about treating people with courtesy and politeness and being kind to one another. It’s about listening first to someone before speaking. Having respect for others should be standard practice no matter where someone works or lives in the world. 

Having respect is always foundational before any attempt, expression, or act of recognition. 

Recognition Reflection: How do you deal with giving recognition across different cultures?

Roy is no longer writing new content for this site (he has retired!), but you can subscribe to Engage2Excel’s blog as Engage2Excel will be taking Roy’s place writing about similar topics on employee recognition and retention, leadership and strategy.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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