Nicole Sahin, CEO and Founder, Globalization Partners


Over the last few months, many organisations across the world have deployed remote workforces for the first time. With reduced in-person communication, and exacerbated employee worries surrounding the pandemic, it is more important than ever that employers ensure their teams feel valued, even from a distance.


Celebrating great work inspires employees, with four out of five employees feeling motivated to work harder when their boss appreciates their efforts. It also benefits employee retention: with nearly 80% of people claiming ‘lack of appreciation’ is the main reason for moving on when changing jobs. Holding on to talent, keeping valuable skills within the organisation and ensuring staff are happy and motivated, really matters – and so does offering thanks.


But showing gratitude means more than simply saying “thank you”—especially when communicating with a multicultural team. It is a more nuanced subject than many people think. For anyone in a position to say thanks to a colleague, especially leaders and managers, expressing gratitude in an appropriate way is an essential part of a modern management style.


Saying thanks can be a unique challenge when working with a global team, as it may require a different approach across different cultures. What is rewarding to one global team member, for example, can cause stress or even offense to another. Ideally, expressing gratitude conveys feelings of positivity, but having an accurate understanding of what constitutes gratitude for the employee, and how to express it in their particular culture, is key to achieving that goal.


Here are some cultural specifics to keep in mind:


  1. Collectivist vs individualist cultures


In the UK and many other individualist cultures, being singled out is appreciated, but this is less true in countries that are highly group oriented. In fact, about 85% of the world’s population lives in cultures that are considered collectivist. Employees working in these environments don’t like being singled out, even to be told thank you. There are plenty of examples: “The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down,” is a well-known Japanese saying.


Instead, team members from collectivist cultures often appreciate the work of the group more than the contribution of any one individual and find it awkward or embarrassing to be called out. Thanking them as part of a gesture of gratitude to the overall team can be a much better option.


  1. “Face” up to different cultural norms


In the west, many people will be familiar with the expression that describes ‘loss of face,’ without really attaching too much weight to it in their everyday interactions with others. However, people from Chinese, Arabic, Korean, Malaysian, Laotian, Indian, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai cultures, among many others, are known for their variations on the concept of “face”, or as it is known in China: mianzi. In these cultures, the ‘face’ concepts of honour and dignity can be exceptionally important to social discourse and behaviour.


But what is it? Face is the ability to enhance (or detract) from one’s reputation among peers. When applied to gratitude, it often involves what the Chinese call bao, or reciprocity. For example, if you want to enhance a colleague’s relationship with you in these cultures, you can do this by exchanging gifts. Reciprocity is an important part of this process. However, if you’re simply 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.


  1. Respect workplace hierarchies


In many 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 study found that verbal expressions of gratitude are common among English-speaking cultures but are quite rare in many other parts of the world. In these cultures, it is better to show gratitude by simply showing trust in the employees’ behaviour, because, if a manager is too effusive with verbal thanks, it can undermine both their credibility and their position of authority.


  1. Avoid accidental insults


For many of us with less experience of other cultures, particularly in a professional environment, it might be hard to imagine that saying thanks could be anything other than positive. But in many places and cultures, ‘thanks’ is a watered-down word at best and insulting at worst. A thank you letter, for example, could imply you are surprised by the recipient’s generosity, which can be received as more of an insult than a demonstration of gratitude.


Instead, many cultures prefer to see gratitude expressed through actions or reflected in respect. It’s important, therefore, to remember that expressions of gratitude are not always the same as words of thanks and adjusting accordingly is key.


  1. Check with local culture experts

Here’s a cautionary tale on the unintended consequences of trying to say thanks: 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 linked to death in that culture. Employees were distraught and attempts to fix it only compounded the problem.


Similarly, in China and Japan, it’s seen as bad luck to give a gift of a clock because they are viewed as a reminder of death. There are various ways that people need to be considerate, but as a rule, these gift giving problems should be relatively easy to avoid by checking with local culture experts to get advice on what will resonate, and what could offend.


These examples all serve to highlight the cultural complexities of expressing thanks when working across an international organisation. Putting time and effort into understanding the interesting ways different cultures work can help build positive long-term relationships, and is time well spent for anyone who wants to say thanks.