An American in Berlin

German Feedback

“I started working for a German company a few years ago and was immediately excited to find that they had a culture of frequent feedback.

As the weeks went on, the feedback kept on coming. Very quickly, I began to see a pattern; it was almost entirely negative. All delivered amazingly well, with examples of how I’d fucked up alongside helpful guidance on how I might want to improve.

The onslaught continued; it was relentless. It became apparent to me that there was very little chance of me passing my probation period if this continued. So I buckled down, pushed myself to breaking point and put in those extra hours to save my job. But still, it kept continuing critical feedback, after critical feedback.

For the first time in my career, I was going to fail my probation period. There was no point in getting feedback on how I improve the situation. I was getting it daily. I was just shit.

So finally, my final probation review came around. Everything was excellent; the company was super happy with my progress and delivery. I passed my probation period with flying colours. But it had broken me. I was fried and burnt out.”

Feedback: Be a little German, Be a little American.

American Feedback

“I have recently started working in an entirely new industry, leading a small team. Shortly after joining, my team’s scope changed to a new problem space.

Again, this company had an active feedback culture and processes. Constant feedback was given to the team every two weeks from leadership. As we built the team and worked out how we were going to achieve our new goals, we got feedback all the time. And it was always positive.

This didn’t play well for me. I knew that there was no way that we could be that good, we were a team with little experience in what we were doing, how could we be doing that well? There must be areas for improvement.

As this continued, positive feedback began to feel more and more empty. I went hunting for critical feedback. Unfortunately, this manifested in me trying to find critical input for the team bellow me. I became overly focused on trying to find areas for improvement in the team.

The problem came to a head when one of my team said ‘I only get negative feedback from you, and I don’t know what to do about it.’ I was so focused on finding the negative areas that we could improve on, and I had not given any support for improvement. I had also failed to celebrate the positive.”

Women’s Clothing Sizes

Modern standard sizes for women’s clothing first began in the 1940s in the U.S. However, women preferred smaller sizes, so over the course of the next several decades, the fashion industry began downsizing its sizes, so that a 16 in the 1940s was a 12 in the 1960s and a 6 in recent times.

Thanks to this downsizing there is also a large discrepancy between American and European sizes – an American size 10 is equivalent to a British 14.

Everyone Gets a Ribbon

Often in children’s sports and other contests (spelling bees, science fairs, etc.) in America, all of the contestants receive ribbons and trophies, no matter how poorly they perform at the events.

Kay Wyma, an American mother who writes articles for a parenting blog, once discussed volunteering to write ribbons during her child’s swim meet. At the event, every child and teenager (the meet was for children up to 16 years old) received a ribbon for every race in which they competed, no matter what place they received.

In an article from NPR (National Public Radio) American Jorge Perez, vice president of youth development and social responsibility for the YMCA, talked about former youth who had participated in sports at his YMCA, and how years later they still had the trophies and clearly valued them. Perez argued that these trophies were an important part of their lives – a way to say “I did this.”

“criticism my way”

“I like criticism, but it must be my way.” Mark Twain in his Autobiography

“I don’t mind what the opposition say of me so long as they don’t tell the truth about me. But when they descend to telling the truth about me I consider that this is taking an unfair advantage.” Mark Twain, 1879

„If you can‘t say anything positive”

Euphemism: The substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant: eliminate for kill; suboptimal for below standard; interesting for bad; issue or challenge for problem; career change, early retirement opportunity, career transition, involuntarily separation for being fired;

economically disadvantaged for poor; temporary negative cash flow for broke; substandard housing or economically depressed neighborhood for slum; collateral damage for deaths of women and children and old people; pre-owned vehicle for used car; adult beverages for alcohol.

Almost every American has at some point in their lives heard the statement „If you can‘t say anything positive, don‘t say anything at all.“ Americans are careful about giving negative feedback. Charles Schwab has been quoted: “I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.”

Sandwich Method

The sandwich method is describes the American approach to giving negative feedback. Its goal is to communicate criticism in a way which will avoid demotivating the other person. Like a sandwich with a slice a bread on both the top and the bottom, praise is given at the beginning and the end of the feedback talk. In the middle is the substance of the conversation, the points of criticism. Open with praise. Communicate criticism. Close with praise.

Is there anything new about this? Research on the American approach to communicating criticism over the last fifty to one hundred years would probably show that it is not. American ears know to listen carefully after the positive has been said. They listen for the nuances, the terms used, especially the euphemisms. This makes it all the more complex and difficult to understand for non-Americans, regardless of strong their command of the English language.

„You did a fine job.“

Steve Jobs – Merciless Criticism

An article on Jony Ive, the head of design at Apple Computer, in the New Yorker Magazine from February 23, 2105 touches on how the late Steve Jobs gave constructive feedback:

“Jobs’s taste for merciless criticism was notorious; Ive recalled that, years ago, after seeing colleagues crushed, he protested. Jobs replied, `Why would you be vague?,’ arguing that ambiguity was a form of selfishness: `You don’t care about how they feel! You’re being vain, you want them to like you.’ 

Ive was furious, but came to agree. `It’s really demeaning to think that, in this deep desire to be liked, you’ve compromised giving clear, unambiguous feedback,’ he said. He lamented that there were `so many anecdotes’ about Jobs’s acerbity: `His intention, and motivation, wasn’t to be hurtful.`„

Steve Jobs. More German than American logic.

Constructive Criticism

Critique: A detailed analysis and assessment of something, especially a literary, philosophical, or political theory. Derived from mid 17th century from French, based on Greek kritikē tekhnē ‘critical art”.

Constructive criticism is legitimate criticism – fair, objective, well grounded. It is constructive when its purpose, tone and spirit aim to help the other person recognize, understand and then correct their weaknesses. Constructive criticism is helpful.

Employee evaluation helps management to measure performance while maintaining motivation and reducing employee turnover. It has three components: praise work well done; address areas of improvement; recommend improvement measures. Employee evaluations also serve as documentation of future goals to be reviewed at a later date.

There are 58,885 books on self-improvement on Amazon.com. The most popular areas for self-improvement are money management, healthy living, attitude, speaking skills, time management, and interpersonal relations.

Popular titles include “The Power of Self-Coaching: The Five Essential Steps to Creating the Life You Want” by Joseph J. Luciani, “The Secret Art of Self-Development: 16 Little-Known Rules for Eternal Happiness & Freedom” by Karl Moore, “50 Self-Help Classics: 50 Inspirational Books to Transform Your Life from Timeless Sages to Contemporary Gurus” by Tom Butler-Bowdon, and “I Had It All The Time: When Self-Improvement Gives Way to Ecstasy” by Alan Cohen.

“Coach me“

Americans expect to be coached by their team lead. If the team lead has accurately identified weaknesses in a team member, and has communicated them clearly, fairly and diplomatically in a feedback talk, then it is expected that the team lead then coach her „player.“

Just as a basketball coach will take extra time with a player after practice to work on dribbling or shooting skills, so too a good manager in the American business context will take the time to explain to the employee how to perform certain tasks better: give presentations, write reports, perform calculations, attach the part to the machine, handle customer issues, work with external suppliers, and manager their own team. The list is endless.

If the team lead, however, is not in a position to coach her player directly – due to time constraints or perhaps she is not a master of the skill herself – then she should, at a minimum, know where to send that team member in order to be coached, taught, instructed, advised.

Coach. Player. Americans want to be coached. American sports coaches are deeply involved in how their players play.

Coachable

To be coachable means to allow yourself to be coached: accept criticism, want to improve, do the necessary extra work in order to perform better, listen to the coach. Critical feedback – regardless of how clear, fair, diplomatically communicated – is only helpful if the team member is willing to work with the coach.

When judging talent American sports coaches look carefully at the willingness and ability of a player to be coached, their coachability. American managers are no different. The ideal player (employee) is one who is self-critical, identifies their own weaknesses, takes the initiative by looking for ways to improve, and communicates all of this to their boss.

American team members want a team lead who can coach. American managers want employees who are coachable.

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