Multicultural Teams: Cross Cultural Approaches to Time Management

Matthew MacLachlan

26 Apr 2010

 

Everyone has heard the expression “Time is money”. This saying has an equivalent in most languages, demonstrating that the concept of time plays an important role in business cultures across the globe.

Modern Western business, in particular, considers the efficient use of time as a measurement of success. For example, if a project is not completed by the agreed date, the company will lose profit and its reputation will suffer. However, other cultures take a different approach to time management. Some Eastern cultures, such as India and Japan, tend to favour the coordination of tasks rather than tackling them sequentially.

Cultural awareness training provides an introduction to the concepts of time and how they differ across cultures, providing you with a better understanding of what to expect when working with international counterparts.

One cross cultural theory about time that intercultural training covers was developed by Edward T. Hall, an American anthropologist and cultural expert. Hall distinguished between monochronic and polychronic views of time. For example, when doing business in Germany or the US, both monochronic cultures, you will find that your counterparts tend to consider that time is wasted unless decisions are being made and actions are carried out. The task is the priority and communication between colleagues is often direct and to the point.

However, in polychronic cultures like India, time is not perceived as a number of slots where each is presented by a definite task that needs to be tackled sequentially. Instead, when doing business in India, you will find their polychronic approach to time is much less driven by a need to get things done on time and more by the fact that things are done and harmonious relationships are maintained throughout the process.

The difference in these cross cultural approaches can create significant challenges for anyone working in a multicultural team. When your multicultural team members have attitudes to time that are similar to yours, coordinating projects can be relatively problem-free. However, when your team members from different cultures view time differently, issues relating to planning, decision-making or project deadlines can often lead to frustrations caused by miscommunication and mismatched expectations.

For example, a German working on a multicultural team with Indian nationals may become frustrated by what he perceives to be indirectness or lack of urgency in his colleagues. Conversely, the Indian team members may feel that their German counterparts come across as being pushy and fail to consider the harmony of the team.

Another clear illustration of contrast between these two attitudes to time can be found in comparing the American and Japanese modes of production. The American model, credited to Ford, is a linear production line, with one task following another until the product is finished. The Japanese, however, initiated the ‘just-in-time’ model, credited to Toyota, in which production is synchronised to allow the company to minimise waste and be responsive to demand.

These are just a few examples that show how attitudes to time can present challenges and benefits for multicultural teams. The challenges and advantages that different attitudes to time can create are numerous and can have a clear negative or positive impact on multicultural teams and the success of the projects that they work on. By participating in a Cross Cultural Training course such as Working across Cultures or Intercultural Training Germany, multicultural teams can develop strategies to not only cope with their differences but harness them for more effective team working and productivity.

 



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