Navigating The Complexities Of Communicating Negative Feedback Within The Chinese Culture

People from different cultures may have different values and different ways  of communicating  — which affects their responses towards providing and receiving negative feedback.

Aside from being known as one of the world’s most populous countries and largest economies, China is also known as one of the more challenging countries to do business in. Communicating effectively in China requires a deep understanding of their culture, along with the ability to interpret the nuances in the way they communicate. 

Before getting into the complexities of giving and communicating feedback in Chinese culture, here are 3 important facts and cultural concepts that you should understand about their culture.

1. China is a high-context culture

The concept of high and low context cultures refers to the environmental and interpersonal factors that impact the way people communicate. 

Low-context communication is more direct and relies more on the words being used whilst communicating, rather than the shared context and the relationship between speakers. 

High-context communication relies heavily on shared context, so it is important for listeners to pay attention to what is not being said explicitly as well as the words being communicated. 

Communication in China tends to be indirect and the real message needs to be interpreted according to the context. Without understanding the context, the chances of misunderstanding, confusion, and conflicting messages rise significantly. 

2. The importance of Face (Mianzi)

The concept of Mianzi or Face is deeply rooted in Chinese culture and communication. It represents a person’s social standing and dignity within social relationships. It can be lost, maintained, or strengthened during interactions. 

That is why in Chinese culture, employees rarely show their disagreement or disappointment to their superiors — especially in public. Chinese managers also rarely go against or point out mistakes made by employees in public, so they won’t “lose face” in front of their colleagues. Instead, mistakes and opinions will be shared privately, with relevant parties only.

3. Relationships (Guanxi) and harmony are crucial

There is a concept in China called “Guanxi”, which means building a relationship, connection, or network in the workplace. In Chinese culture, showing that you are a part of the team is important — because great teamwork will help achieve even greater results. In a collective society, it is important to ensure that people do not view you as too individualistic.

The main purpose of all this is to create harmony. In Chinese culture, maintaining harmony is crucial. Employees often avoid expressing their opinions or suggestions in public, but they can be quite open and honest in private conversations.

4 Tips on how to properly communicate negative feedback in Chinese culture

1. Connect with your peers

Building a good relationship with your team before delivering feedback is key to ensuring that they will listen to what you are saying and be able to receive that feedback. 

In order to build a strong bond with team members, it is important to join after-work activities with your co-workers. Join that short overnight trip they invite you to and do not forget to buy a nice and thoughtful gift for special events. Participating in all sorts of activities with your coworkers is crucial to show that you are a part of the team. 

But most importantly, take the time to really get to know your employees and peers. Ask about their interests, families, or even the best place to eat around town. By putting in the effort to build a relationship (guanxi) and a good rapport with your colleagues, you are letting them know that you sincerely care about them and have their best interests at heart. That way, when you give them feedback, they know that it comes from a good place and it is meant to help them. 

2. Say it in private

Since China is a high-context culture, there are a lot of nuances or contextual clues that may not be interpreted correctly while conveying a message through an email or a phone call. It is always better to deliver feedback face-to-face so that you can see and interpret the reaction the other person has towards your feedback. 

It is also better to avoid giving feedback in front of a large group of people as  “keeping face” is very important in Chinese culture. Have a discussion with that specific person in private, whether it is in your office or while eating together. 

3. Find the right moment

Timing is everything — even more so when you are giving feedback to your colleague or employees. Rather than approaching them when they are under a lot of pressure or working on a tight deadline — find a time when they feel more comfortable and relaxed. 

This applies both to their current situation and their relationship with you — which is why building a solid relationship with your team is crucial. Their mood can determine whether or not they will listen to what you have to say, and it will significantly impact their reaction towards receiving your feedback. 

4. Try feedforward

If you find providing negative feedback challenging, or are concerned that it might impact your relationship with your colleagues or employees, feedforward may be a better approach. 

Feedforward is a short exercise created by Marshall Goldsmith the world’s #1 leadership thinker. Unlike feedback, which can be negative and focused on the mistakes of the past, feedforward is focused on solutions and what can be improved in the future without dragging past mistakes.

This is the most effective way to communicate the need for improvement in a way that does not create disharmony or make your peers “lose face”. Although it might be best to still do it privately, feedforward suggestions might be easier to accept than negative feedback. 

Help them voice out their opinions

If your colleagues or employees are reluctant to argue or voice their opinions, group exercises might help encourage them to voice out their opinions. Group exercises make everyone feel obligated and more comfortable in sharing their thoughts. By doing this more often, they will feel more comfortable and confident to share their opinions, as long as the leaders in the company ensure psychological safety in the workplace.

However, it is important to build a relationship with the team first and ensure that you give them some time to prepare themselves. Never put someone on the spot, as it could be considered a public humiliation and cause them to lose face if the individual being called is not ready to express their opinions.

Please bear in mind that there will be different variations of cultural traits and working styles in different regions of China, companies, and teams. The most important thing to do wherever you are working is to take the time to build a relationship with your team and develop a shared context that will help you communicate more effectively. 

Interested in learning more about feedback and feedforward? Head over to our knowledge bank!


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