Compliments and cultural intelligence

2012

The giving and receiving of "compliments" is a classic example of leadership mantras falling short when mindlessly applied to all cultures. I did a quick search through the leadership books on my shelf and I quickly found the following from authors I respect:

"A sincere compliment, builds goodwill, appreciation, and a willingness to go the extra mile."

"Managers build loyalty when they celebrate their employees' successes with compliments."

"You should continue to compliment and uplift people, even if your efforts are initially met with a cold shoulder."

There are many people I've worked with who should heed those words! But whether or not compliments are welcomed and the appropriate way to use them has a great deal to do with personality and culture.

According to most "English" etiquette gurus, the best way to give a compliment is to be sincere and specific. And we're told the polite way to respond is to simply accept it. Don't make too much of it but don't deny it either.

Even for those of us who come from Western cultures, being on the receiving end of a compliment can be a bit uncomfortable. To agree with it may seem arrogant. But to reject it may come off as defensive, manipulative or insecure. Nevertheless, it's widely accepted that leaders should provide regular, sincere praise and that recipients should graciously accept it and move on.

Feedback and motivation are something most everyone wants from a leader, whatever the culture involved. But the way to effectively provide feedback, such as compliments, is highly dependent upon the cultural dynamics involved.

For example, humility is a dominant virtue in countries like China, Japan, and Korea. To accept a compliment is to place yourself above the group. It's much better to reject or deflect it.

A similar dynamic exists in many Middle Eastern cultures, where modesty and self-effacement are an important part of the social and religious fabric. And in many African cultures, if you compliment a person's shirt or food, s/he is obligated to give it to you. In contrast, some cultures believe that saying, "You look so fat!" is a tremendous compliment.

I recently shared a few of these ideas at a conference where I was speaking. During the Q&A, the inevitable question was asked: "So how should I provide positive feedback to a Chinese employee?"

"It depends" I replied, knowing that was probably not the answer the audience member was looking for. There are too many variables involved to spell out simple lists of how to compliment people based upon their cultural background.

Six Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Give a Compliment
Instead, I suggested running through the following questions to come up with her own idea of how to compliment a Chinese employee. You'll note that each of these assumes some basic cultural knowledge of cultural values and personal preferences:

  1. What's the nature of your relationship (e.g. your history together, your roles within the organization, etc.)
  2. Should the compliment be directed to the individual or to a group? (if this is a "typical" Chinese person, a compliment directed more toward the person's 'in- group' would likely be better received than just directing it toward the individual).
  3. How explicit should the compliment be? (again, if this individual fits Chinese norms, an indirect approach will likely be better).
  4. What are you affirming (character, performance, reputation, etc.)?
  5. What is the ideal context for sharing the compliment (private vs. public, written vs. verbal, etc.).
  6. Do the cultural norms for compliments apply to this individual? (Don't assume that all things said about Chinese preferences apply to this individual. You have to get to know him/her as a person.)

This is precisely why we have to help leaders build cultural intelligence. Lists of "do's and don'ts" and "best practices" are fine as starting points. But the culturally intelligent leader will take into account the many variables involved when thinking about how to effectively give a compliment.

So the next time you give or receive a compliment, stop to think about how the culture of the other individual informs how you should behave

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.