Fair Critical Feedback

Germans consider critical feedback to be unfair if it does not include concrete recommendations on how to improve on weaknesses. They believe that people can only improve on what they understand to be suboptimal. Critial feedback, the Germans believe, should therefore be communicated clearly, avoiding any use of politically correct language.

The more objective and impersonal the critical feedback is stated, the less chance it will be taken personally. Feedback experts in Germany go as far as to view personal relationships within teams as a barrier to honest, effective feedback. They often recommend neutral third parties to facilitate particularly critical feedback discussions.

Impersonal Critique

In the German context feedback about one‘s work is in and of itself not personal. Germans – team leads as well as members – can argue vehemently about business topics and at the same time have a friendly, collegial working relationship. German management can criticize harshly an employee but still respect and personally like that individual. In Germany feedback is not personal.

In German team meetings open, honest, direct feedback is not only permitted, it is desired. Weaknesses in individual performance are addressed by team lead and members alike. The criticism, however, is not meant, and is not taken, as a personal attack, not jemandem etwas ins Gesicht sagen (to tell them off), but more to „get a it on the table“, in den Raum stellen.

Jemandem etwas ins Gesicht sagen: to say something critical to another person‘s face; to say something mean, unfair, provoking; to tell someone the unadultered truth; to give another person „a piece of your mind.“

Etwas in den Raum stellen: to put something in the room; to raise a question, a problem; to comment on, to make an observation; to bring a subject into the discussion.

„I‘m getting tired of seeing your mug“

Critique is taken personally in the German culture when it is communicated in a condescending or aggressive way. Germans react very sensitively to personal insults or attacks. There is absolutely no place in German feedback discussions for any form of personal insult.

The ongoing Euro crisis has tested the nerves of both political and business leaders alike in Germany. Chancellor Merkel‘s former Chief of Staff, Ronald Pofalla, criticized harshly a colleague by saying Ich kann Deine Fresse nicht mehr sehen – „I‘m getting tired of seeing your mug“. Fresse is an idiom for an animal‘s mouth. He was forced to apologize in front of Parliamentary Caucus, but remained in his position.

Talent Shows

Talent shows have been popular in Germany for many years. Amateur entertainers take the stage, perform their act, are then judged by a panel of three.

The most famous judge in Germany is Dieter Bohlen, a former pop singer in Germany in the 1980s. Bohlen is known for the crass, aggressive and insulting way in which he criticizes the amateur entertainers. After ten years Deutschland sucht den Superstar (Germany seeks a Superstar) with – or perhaps due to – Dieter Bohlen remains the most popular talent show.

The clearest contrast to Bohlen is Stefan Raab, currently Germany‘s most popular talk show host. Raab, a member of the jury for the Eurovision Song Contest, provides his feedback just as openly and directly as Bohlen or any other German, but in a diplomatic way, often using self-irony, so that the contestants can laugh at themselves.

Raab praised the Eurovision winner, Lena, by addressing her unique way of breathing: „You sing totally differently than is taught in professional voice schools. Your breathing technique is utterly unique, it‘s nowhere near what is considered standard practice.“ Lena smiled back at Raab and said: „I don‘t have a breathing technique.“

Critique and Humour

German colleagues will at times communicate critical feedback with irony, hoping to gain a smirk or a smile. This is not meant to make fun of the colleague whose work is being criticized, but rather to add a lightness to the criticism.

The person criticized is given the opportunity to accept the feedback with a sense of humour and light-heartedness. The Germans value the ability to maintain a healthy, objective distance to one‘s own work.

Humor: the ability to accept with lightness personal imperfections and those of the world, as well as the difficulties of daily life.