What is rewarding to one global team member could cause another to become upset or even take offense. An accurate understanding of what gratitude looks like for each employee, and how to express it in their culture, can help avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. Given that four out of five employees are motivated to work harder after their manager shows gratitude for their contribution, expressing appreciation in the right way is important. Getting it wrong, on the other hand, can not only have negative consequences, but can result in employees deciding to look for a new job, affecting your employer brand. Studies show 79 percent of people who leave their job cite “lack of appreciation” as their main reason for moving on.
Here are five top tips for ensuring a “thank you” is always well received, no matter where you are:
1. Team players don’t want to be singled out
In our western individualist cultures, being singled out is usually appreciated -- something which is at odds with countries that are highly team-oriented. Given that around 85% of the world’s population lives in cultures that are considered “collectivist,” this is a very important distinction for people working as part of an international team. Employees in these cultures don’t like being singled out. “The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down,” is a well-known Japanese saying.
Colleagues from collectivist cultures often appreciate the work of the team more than the contribution of any one individual. They can find it awkward or embarrassing to be called out, even for a sincere thank you. To get it right, express gratitude as part of thanking the overall team instead.
2. Understand the social norms of “face” cultures
A huge range of cultures, from Chinese, Arabic, Korean and Malaysian to Indian, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai (among many others) are known for the emphasis they place on the concept of “face.” This is the ability to enhance (or detract) from one’s reputation among peers, and in relation to gratitude, this often involves the need to show reciprocity. In the case of gift-giving, for example, it is less an act of gratitude than an exchange of what is known in China as ‘mianzi’. This means if you want to enhance a relationship with a colleague in these cultures, you can do so by the exchange of gifts. But if you’re just trying to say thank you, and don’t want a gift in return, you should consider finding another way to express yourself.
3. Gift-giving differs by culture and should be approached with care
Getting the rules of gift-giving wrong can be nothing short of disastrous. When one Singaporean company decided to give its employees a small thank you for the Chinese New Year, for example, 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, which is a number associated with death in that culture. Similarly, it’s considered bad luck in China and Japan to give a gift of a clock because clocks serve as a reminder of death. And in Russia, you are advised not to give flowers bundled in even numbers. The variations are complex and nuanced, so before giving gifts, check with local culture experts to get advice on what will resonate, and what could offend.
4. The role of hierarchy varies around the world
In the United States and other western cultures, good managers will readily thank employees for their effort, commitment or a job well done. But this can be very different in countries where hierarchy is central to daily working relationships. In these “high power distance” cultures, if managers are too effusive with verbal thanks, it can undermine both their credibility and their position of authority. It’s much better to show gratitude by demonstrating trust in your employees’ behavior.
5. Saying thanks can be perceived as an insult
In many cultures, people prefer to see gratitude expressed through actions or reflected in respect. The act of saying “thanks” is watered down at best and can even be considered insulting. For example, sending a thank you letter could imply you are surprised by the recipient’s generosity, and be taken as more of an insult than a demonstration of gratitude. It’s important, therefore, to remember that expressions of gratitude are not always the same as words of thanks, and to adjust accordingly.
Putting time and effort into understanding how different cultures work can help build positive long-term relationships, and is time well spent for anyone who wants to say thanks.