Cross Cultural Time at Work

There is possibly nothing more generative than a cross-cultural team, but cross-cultural teams also come with challenges and at times, misunderstandings. Among the challenges posed by cross cultural teams are members’ very different feelings about deadlines. Stereotypes not withstanding, some cultures are more punctual than other cultures, and in the workplace this can and does cause conflicts.

Working in Different Time Zones and Temporalities

downloadTake Greta Simpson—an American communications director for a well-known social media platform. Simpson has always considered herself to be “extremely punctual”…that is, until she was asked to coordinate with colleagues in Germany. In Germany, Simpson quickly discovered that showing up on time is not necessary enough. Showing up five and even thirty minutes early is a much better strategy. By contrast, when Simpson was coordinating with colleagues in the south of Spain, her experience was notably different. While she was set to work throughout the day, she soon learned that her colleagues typically would take a two to three hour break in the afternoon and then work into the early evening.

Beyond the specifics, Simpson’s travels have also revealed that sticking to deadlines means different things in different contexts: “I work with clients around the globe, which is what I lovdownload2e about my job, but I’ve had to adjust. In some places, a deadline is a deadline and in other places a deadline is simply a general target. I’ve learned to adjust and be flexible and in some cases, I just lie—if I know I’m dealing with a team with, let’s say a loose relationship to time, I may move up the deadline to ensure the project is already rolling when I need it to be closing!” Simpson, however, is not like all global workers. She’s exceptionally astute and exceptionally flexible.

Strategies for Managing Cross-Cultural Time Conflicts

download3As Elizabeth Grace Sanders, a “time coach” and the author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money, observes:

There are a number of reasons these [time] conflicts happen. Some cultures don’t speak directly about issues; others don’t want to disappoint on a promise; still others may not realize that the deadline was literal. Our colleagues from other cultures aren’t trying to be dishonest or misleading, but between the conflicting definitions and the uncertainty about progress, how is a manager of a cross-cultural team to cope?

Sanders emphasizes, “If you’re a manager who wants to avoid missed deadlines and frustration, here are four tips for effectively working with teams from different cultures.”

Assume that everyone has the good intentions: Don’t assume everyone on your cross-cultural team shares your sense of time but do assume they have best intentions. As Sanders explains:

They may not internalize the importance of certain deliverables happening at a certain time, or fully comprehend what you’re asking for. And they may not communicate with you in a direct manner when things don’t go according to plan. Assume the best of people’s motives. When you feel frustrated or begin to judge your counterparts from other cultures, stop. Instead, use the miscommunication as an opportunity to discover what is really going on.

Be clear about your time frame and deadlines: When some people hear “shortly,” they think minutes. For other people, “shortly” means within the next few weeks. Be as precise as possible when dealing with time frames and deadlines. Don’t rely on common interpretations of vague measurements.

Adopt a “cultural buffer” for time: When working on projects with global teams assume the time frame will be longer. There may be national holidays or religious festivals that you have not even anticipated. There may be cultural differences that extend the time frame. To be on the safe side, add time to the project from the onset.

Check in more frequently: Finally, as Sanders advises:

One of the best ways to leap over communication barriers and ensure you’re truly aligned on progress and deadlines is to look at the actual work more often. Instead of checking in to ask how things are going and getting a response that may not be crystal clear, ask to see the actual work, whether that’s a spreadsheet, slide deck, status report, or other indication of tangible progress. Meeting deadlines with any team can be a challenge. But with cross-cultural teams the challenge peaks to a higher elevation.

June 11, 2016   Updated :September 8, 2016      

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