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Time Management in Other Cultures

Managers and supervisors who work with multicultural employees often express frustration with the way some of these associates manage their time at work. Complaints often include an inability to meet deadlines (even when employees said they could), the recurrence of being late for meetings, or the apparent lack of focus on a priority task.
No doubt, such behaviors can have serious consequences on productivity and team morale. But when they take place—not all multicultural employees engage in these practices—cultural differences usually are at play.
Please keep in mind that the following statements are generalizations, which should be used as filters, not as a way to foster further damaging stereotypes. In other words, when confronted with these behaviors and concepts, you should think of them as a signal that you must modify your management style to get the results you need.
Time in Different Cultures
While in mainstream American society we tend to think of time in separate and manageable segments, other cultures perceive time as a flowing commodity that can’t be controlled. People whose roots are in southern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia as well as Native- and African-Americans are in the second category. Typically, they are raised to think of schedules, agendas, and appointments as flexible because involvement and interaction with people are considered more important. That is why they may not exhibit a “sense of urgency” or a “make it happen” philosophy but may use other ways to achieve results.
Thus, it is entirely possible that an employee from any of these cultures, even if born in the United States, may do the following:

  • Miss a deadline because somewhere in the process, a human concern took precedence over the task. This could have been resolving a conflict with a coworker, tending to a family need, or feeling that it was inappropriate to ask for an extension (as this may be viewed negatively) even though all signs pointed to the deadline being unrealistic in the first place.
  • Be late to a meeting because bringing to an end another meeting or activity just because the clock said so would have been rude.
  • Appear to be involved in too many things instead of the task with the highest priority. In other cultures, dubbed by cultural anthropologist Edward T. Hall as “High Context” cultures, people may not concentrate or act on one thing at a time in a linear fashion (e.g., waiting on several customers at the same time as opposed to one customer at a time, as is customary in mainstream U.S. society). Interruptions for them are acceptable so they may take a call just because someone is at the other end of the line even though a deadline must be met. They also may try to solve several problems at the same time. In short, they are the ultimate multi-taskers.
  • View goals as ideals since many other human concerns, along with the elusive time factor, may interfere with their achievement.
  • Seem to agree to do something but don’t. People in High Context cultures are very reluctant to say no, so they communicate indirectly (some describe this as not getting to the point very quickly or beating around the bush) to avoid offending someone or hurting their feelings—or simply to save face. If, for example, the boss asks: “Can we meet this deadline?” the answer could be “maybe” or a qualified “yes,” as in “yes, if two previous projects are completed on time.” The employee may think: If the boss asks this question thinking that we can meet the deadline, I shouldn’t say otherwise in front of others or admit that the deadline is unrealistic given the circumstances.

Adapting Your Management Style
If these issues become apparent, try one or more of the following ideas. Please don’t insult multicultural employees who can manage your expectations by indiscriminately applying these solutions to them.

  • Deal with time-sensitive issues upfront and as a group. If you take multicultural individuals aside, more often than not they will take your suggestions as criticism of their past or current performance.
  • When assigning a task to your team, ask them to come up with a detailed work plan before agreeing to any deadline. This will let them be more realistic in their plans and will allow them to work out differences among themselves. Asians and Latinos, for example, tend to be reluctant to disagree with the boss in front of others.
  • Once a deadline is agreed upon, tell the team that you expect them to come to you if, for any reason, meeting it becomes doubtful. Make it clear that you prefer to discuss these concerns when they surface, not after the deadline is missed. Some multicultural employees may prefer to talk to you in private about their apprehensions.
  • Coach employees who come to talk to you privately about ways to sell their ideas to the rest of the team, or provide a coach or mentor within the team who can perform that function.
  • When an employee seems to agree to do something, especially in a non-committal way, paraphrase until you understand the concerns. In the above example, where someone says yes and adds that two other projects are due prior to this one, you should ask “how will that affect your ability to meet this new deadline?” Remember that questions that require yes or no answers may only get you to a qualified “yes,” which, in essence, means “no.”
  • Provide time-management training but understand that such training is only part of the solution. Personality and culture are tied together and will not change easily because of some tactical help.
  • Pair employees with mentors or coaches so they can become aware of the way things are accomplished (and rewarded) within your organization.
  • Make sure everyone—not just your multicultural employees—knows that performance evaluations will take into consideration how well people meet deadlines to achieve desired results.