In any culture and with any two people (employee/manager) - talking about performance problems is a tricky thing. It is usually hardest when the employee and the manager are significantly different - different cultures, ages, expectations, or work styles can all pose even further barriers to what each side assumes is the "typical" behavior.
Here's a couple tips that have worked for me.
We're all on the same team
For many, performance problems are easiest if you can phrase them as problems with the work environment, not personal failings. For example not knowing a given peice of technology that you've never used or been formally trained with is hard, and not understanding immediately does not make you stupid, it makes you new to the topic. In this example, you'll get much farther saying "I am not familiar with this technology, can you make suggestions for how I might get training?" or even "do you mind if I do these things to get myself training? (take a course, read a book, ask for mentoring from another employee, etc)". This is not much different from not having the technical equipment you need - you and your manager should be able to work together to get the project done.
How Soon do I Report a Problem?
As I understand it, different cultures are different - I've noticed when working, for example, with mostly Indian teams that the manager takes on more of the initiative for this, and the individual contributor may only report a problem when an emergency is about to arise. American culture can be very different with employees piping up almost as soon as the project starts with what they'll need and things we should consinder for ultimate success.
Non-confrontational Problem Reporting Tricks
I've also seen big differences in how a problem is raised. Having gone through a few cultures, my first attempt is usually non-confrontational. It's usually been my strategy that I can start off with a very light, mild report of an issue, and then escalate to something more urgent. My key to success is to always try to stay blame-free - avoiding both blaming myself and blaming my manager (or anyone else). That keeps most defensiveness out of the picture.
Here's a few of my tricks and the order I try them:
- Ask a question - "I don't know XYZ technology. How important is it? Will not knowing impact our schedule?" This is usually a good way of getting the other person thinking about the problem, and not feeling attacked. Also, in cases where there's a big power difference between myself and my boss, it lets them benevolently consider my request instead of having to deal with my insubordination.
- Give an if/then - if option 1 fails, and I think the problem is too urgent to be ignored, I gather some evidence and go with an if/then statement - "if I don't have X, I can't do Y within X constraints" - it's alot more authoritative, but it's also a lot more clear - this is for when I am quite sure there will be a problem.
- Please check my work - my final ultimatim - if I simply can't get the point across, I'll sit down with the body of work (after doing #1 and #2, it is usually substantial) and ask my manager to check my work - what did I miss? what could be different? As it is, I'm usually in a position at this point where I cannot see a way to success. At this point, I'm rarely focused on the simple issue at hand, my main focus is on what went wrong in the overall process and how to fix it so that next time, we don't have to end up here.
Clarify Expectations before Problems Occur
It's not unusual in a new job for me to sit down with my manager in the first two weeks and ask when and how they would like to hear problems. This is certainly an American trick, but it's seemed to work well. I've never tried it in a traditional Asian learning environment - but I've also found in these environments, my teachers will read my body language very clearly and ask me what's wrong, and they expect an honest response.
Quite often, a manager will have a preference - some folks like hearing all the problems in a team meeting where the whole team may be able to help. Others may ask that you bring them to in privately in one on ones, or that you speak to a senior mentor first because the manager himself will be very busy.
By asking way ahead of any actual problems you can get a sense of how long a problem may take to get resolved, and you're doing it at a time when you have no pressure around a serious work issue that needs assistance today.
It may also be a good time to talk about how your manager judges good performance - different managers certainly look for different things and understanding the requirements of both your manager and your job before you start doing it is a very good thing. The key is to come across as wanting to meet your manager's expectations, and not wanting to figure out what you can get away with.
I don't know of any manager who can handle being bombarded by problems day after day. But problems can tend to cluster, so just having gotten assistance with a problem does mean never, ever ask when you encounter another problem shortly therafter.
What I often look for as a manager in terms of signs of a good employee is:
The first time is never problem free. If the employee doesn't encounter problems, they either aren't being challenged, or they aren't telling you their problems, and there are scary problems lurking under the surface. Ask, make yourself available, and hope you get to hear about the problem before it's too late to fix it.
The second time should be lower in problems. Having learned new things and made a few major mistakes, the employee should be able to repeat the task with fewer mistakes and most mistakes should be new because two tasks are rarely ever identical. The area of concern is when an employee disregards a clear guideline or command that was given in the course of the first task, because he didn't realize that it pertained to this task as well.
Third time should be almost problem-free - if something comes up it's either very small or very large - and the employee should show good judgement in whether to raise up the problem for help or to try fixing it himself.
Over the course of time, it is also a good sign if the employee is actively asking "how can I do better next time?" and if the employee and I are having discussions about ways to improve efficiency. This isn't necessarily a case of personal efficiency - certainly if we have a problem with adhering to work hours, communicating with co-workers or other individual work elements - then we'll start there and I'll be hopeful that the employee can address individually controlled areas of the job. But over time, this conversation usually changes to ideas that may help the whole team. That's a natural transition point from a junior role to a more senior one in most technical work.
I expect that problems decline over time and at the same time, the problems that do come up are actually harder to fix, as they show the need for longer term insights, and harder to acquire knowledge.
I suspect that my approach here is an American one, but I also know that there is virtually no realm of knowledge work where employees do not get smarter as they get more experienced, and I would suspect that most cultures expect that there needs to be more time allocated to training the new guy than is required for overseeing someone very experienced.