Showing gratitude means more than simply saying “thank you”—especially when communicating with a multicultural team.
Expressing appreciation in a work environment has some seriously good follow-on effects for both teams and individuals. Four out of five employees are more motivated to work harder after their boss shows gratitude for their contribution.
On the other hand, employees who don’t feel appreciated may quickly look for an exit. Studies show 79 percent of people who quit say “lack of appreciation” is their main reason for leaving.
Incorporating gratitude into your management style is essential, but when you have a global team, it may not look the same across cultures. What is rewarding to one global team member can cause stress or even offense to another. Make sure you approach thankfulness with an accurate understanding of what gratitude looks like for your employee, and how to express it in their culture.
Here are five things to keep in mind:
1. Not everyone wants to be a superstar.
Employees in collectivist cultures don’t like being singled out. “The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down,” is a well-known Japanese saying. Likewise, Nordic countries tend to follow the informal Law of Jante. One tenent is: “You’re not to think you’re anything special.”
In the U.S., an individualist culture, being singled out is appreciated, but this is less true in countries that are highly team-oriented. About 85% of the world’s population lives in cultures that are considered “collectivist”. Team members from collectivist cultures often appreciate the work of the team more than the contribution of any one individual, and find it awkward or embarrassing to be called out, even for a heartfelt thank you. Consider thanking them as part of thanking the overall team instead.
2. Employees from “face” cultures might feel they need to return the favor.
Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Malaysian, Laotian, Indian, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai cultures, among others, are known for their variations on the concept of “face”, or as it is known in China: mianzi. Face is the ability to enhance (or detract) from one’s reputation among peers. When it comes to gratitude, this often involves what the Chinese call bao, or reciprocity. Gift giving is less an act of gratitude than an exchange of mianzi. That means if you want to enhance a colleague’s relationship with you in these cultures, you can do this by the exchange of gifts. But if you’re trying to make a gesture of gratitude, and don’t really want a gift in return, you should consider finding another way to express yourself.
3. Don’t upset the hierarchy.
In high power-distance cultures, thank according to your place in the hierarchy. In the United States and other western cultures, the mark of a good manager is their ability and willingness to thank their employees for a job well done. But this isn’t always the case in countries where hierarchy is very important to working relationships. One recent study found that verbal expressions of gratitude are common among English speakers—who tend to live in lower power-distance cultures—but quite rare in many parts of the world. In fact, if a manager is too effusive with verbal thanks in these cultures, it undermines both their credibility and their position of authority. In these cultures, it is better to show your gratitude by simply showing trust in your employees’ behavior.
4. “Thanks” could actually be insulting.
In the U.S., people associate the emotion of gratitude with saying “thank you”. It’s said often, from the end of a business transaction to when someone holds the door. But in many cultures, the word “thanks” is watered down at best and insulting at worst. Many cultures prefer to see gratitude expressed through actions or reflected in respect. A thank you letter could imply you are surprised by the recipient’s generosity – more of an insult than a showing of gratitude. It’s important to remember that expressions of gratitude are not always the same as words of thanks and adjust accordingly.
5. Research gift-giving practices beforehand.
Understand local culture when gift giving. When one Singaporean company decided to give its employees a small thank you for the Chinese New Year, they chose a gift that was so culturally out of step they eventually had to close their doors. A $4 reward in a small envelope ended up being a bad omen for the company because they used an increment of 4, a number of death in that culture. Employees were distraught and attempts to fix it only compounded the oversight. Similarly, it’s considered bad luck in China and Japan to give a gift of a clock, which serve as a reminder of death. In Russia you are advised not to give flowers bundled in even numbers. Before gift-giving, check with local culture experts to get advice on what will resonate, and what could offend.
Looking for more advice on managing or rewarding your global team? Globalization Partners can help you navigate the terrain around hiring, rewards and managing teams around the world. Reach out to us to get expert advice on steering your team through global cultural waters.