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Global Diversity Series: Why Different Cultures View Project Deadlines Differently

Sep 30, 2022


In my experience in researching, teaching, and working across cultures, I have come to understand that different cultures see and use time very differently. In fact, Edward T. Hall identified two major patterns in the way individuals use of time: Monochronic and Polychronic. 

There are many differences between these two groups as well as how these differences impact the global workplace. Below is a list of some significant differences between them. 

Monochronic Work Style

  • Time is a commodity. We can save, gain, lose, spend, or waste it.
  • Time is linear, with one event happening at a time.
  • Deadlines, schedules, and keeping to the task are very important.
  • People may be too busy to see us.
  • To be late or kept waiting is considered unprofessional.
  • There is a clear distinction between work time and social time.
  • Productivity is valued over relationships.

Examples of countries/regions with a Monochronic orientation: United States, Germany, and United Kingdom.

Polychronic Work Style

  • Time is limitless and not quantifiable. There is always more time.
  • Time is viewed as more holistic. Many events can happen at once (e.g.: socializing during a meeting is not only accepted but also expected).
  • Plans are fluid. There is no such thing as an interruption.
  • People are never too busy. Schedules, appointments, and deadlines are easily changed.
  • To be late or kept waiting is OK.
  • Work time is easily integrated with social time.
  • Relationships are more important than keeping to the task.

Examples of countries/regions with a Polychronic orientation: India, Africa, the Middle East, Brazil, and Mexico. 

Four Success Strategies for Working with Polychronic Groups

International employees or partners often complain that U.S. Americans seem too busy, too tied to their schedules, and do not prioritize relationships. 

It is important to keep in mind that, whatever our time orientation is, issues are likely to surface in our interactions with employees or clients who have the opposite orientation – especially as it relates to keeping appointments and meeting project deadlines. 

Bhaskar Pant, in his article for Harvard Business Review, offered the following strategies for avoiding misunderstandings when dealing with time and deadlines in a global setting:

1. Do your homework.

Observe and research the cultural differences in your team. This is key to avoiding misunderstandings and loss of face. Better yet, ask questions. Talk to your employees and colleagues. People are often willing to share aspects of their culture when they see that you want to make the relationship work. This can be a win-win situation since it will also give them an opportunity to learn more about the US perspective.

2. Understand your employees’ perspectives and meet them where they are.

Cultural differences matter. In order to get people from multiple cultures to meet an important deadline, appeal to what they value. If it’s maintaining good relationships, as is the case with those with a Polychronic orientation, stress how failure to meet a deadline will damage relationships and result in loss of trust for the company.

3. It is unrealistic to expect a quick reply to your questions or emails.

For certain groups such as the Japanese, Chinese, and those from other East Asian countries, a consensus is necessary. A delayed response does not mean they are being unthoughtful, uncaring, or uninterested. It is very likely the individual is consulting other team members as well as superiors before providing you with an answer. So, managing your expectations is key. 

4. Recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing cross-cultural differences.

As B. Pant suggests, when working in a global environment, you must act like a chameleon. In other words, your colors, or in this case, your strategies, must adapt to your environment. Adapting your strategies to your environment is key to a successful cross-cultural interaction.

The Indeed editorial team said it best: Knowing the differences between both time management methods can help you understand different team members’ behaviors. You will know if punctuality in meetings or if focusing on workplace relationships is what it is called for at the moment. With that in mind, understand that actions that may be seen as less professional for one group (e.g., not starting or finishing meetings on time), may be perfectly acceptable for others. 

The bottom line? Expecting that all global team members will adhere to the same behavior will very likely lead to misunderstandings. So, remember- think like a chameleon and adapt to the situation at hand.



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