Everything is about time: does it have the same meaning all over the world?

Abstract

All projects need organized management of time in order for their project plans to be reflected and properly implemented. Larger projects may in fact have multiple schedules requiring a formal scheduling system. But even the smallest of projects need to have at least a one-page project master schedule to guide it. However, in an increasingly globalized world, the perception of time remains something deeply entrenched in culture and traditions. This raises some important questions:

What happens when a project involves different cultural groups?
How reliable will the activity duration estimation be?

Differences with regard to the perception of time can play out in painful and dramatic ways in the negotiation or conflict resolution processes, and may make communications challenging. In addition, cultural approaches to time may not always be applied in good faith.

What we experienced during our extensive participation in international teams are the problems that can occur when members have different attitudes towards time. For example, someone with a “monochronic” attitude toward time (i.e., one event at a time) may feel that a colleague displaying a “polychronic” attitude toward time (i.e., in which several events may occur simultaneously) is disorganized and feel frustrated with him or her; in contrast, the person with a “polychronic” attitude toward time may become frustrated with “monochronic” colleagues when they are reluctant to take time out on an ad hoc basis to discuss pressing issues.

Introduction

In an increasingly globalized world, understanding the various cultural attitudes and behaviors is crucial for business and product success. Cultural differences in time perception have been cited for many years, but this issue has only recently gained prominence. These differences in the perception of time cause differences in the way people organize their time and behavior. North-American and Northern and Central European people are said to have a “monochronic” (one event at a time) perception of time, whereas Mediterranean, South-American, African, and Asian people are seen as “polychronic” (several events occurring simultaneously) individuals. These two extremes in behavior with regard to time can have important implications in projects when monochronic and polychronic people work together.

This paper introduces the concept of time perception and intends to show possible differences between “monochrons” and “polychrons,” while explaining issues that may occur when people from different cultures work together on projects. In addition, we will provide the reader with some advice, warnings, and recommendations, which are drawn directly from our own work (and life) experiences, for getting along with people in several business contexts.

Perception of the Time

One’s own culture provides the “lens” through which we view the world

Kevin Avruch, Peter Black (1993)

Anthropologists

Cultural Differences in Time; Monochronism and Polychronism

Monochronism

A monochronic approach means, essentially, “doing one thing at a time.” To the monochronic individual, time is tangible, valuable. Schedules are of extremely high importance, and in fact time itself is treated as a commodity of high value, as necessary as or perhaps even more important than satisfaction, good work, and relationships. As a result, this view of time may be stressful.

According to Hall, monochronic perceptions of time can be found primarily in North American and Northern European cultures. Monochronic time is linear. Events are scheduled one at a time, with one event following another. In a monochronic culture, this type of schedule may take precedence over interpersonal relationships. These cultures emphasize schedules, punctuality, and preciseness. They also emphasize “doing” things. They are cultures that value productivity, that value getting things done “on time.” They view time as something that can be lost, killed, or wasted—or, conversely, as something that can, or should, be managed and planned, and used efficiently.

Polychronism

Polychronic time, by contrast, is characterized by several events happening simultaneously. In addition, according to Hall’s theory, interpersonal relationships are highly valued in polychronic cultures. Time is less tangible, and emphasis is placed on the involvement of people and the completion of transactions rather than on schedules. Multitasking is valued. Examples of polychronic cultures are Latin American, African, Arab, and Native American cultures. Their perception of time is considered to be more connected to “natural rhythms,” and to “the earth” and “the seasons.” This makes sense when we consider that natural events can occur spontaneously, sporadically, or concurrently.

Polychronic cultures view time as being more flexible. Because life isn’t entirely predictable, scheduling and being precise are seen as simply not that important. In addition, relationships with people are valued more than staying on schedule. More value is placed on “being” than on “doing.” Different cultural perceptions of time can lead to conflict, especially in the business world. The idea of being late versus on time for a meeting, for example, may differ widely between an American businessperson and a Brazilian; the American businessperson might be far less tolerant of a Brazilian’s late arrival. However, the Brazilian businessperson may be offended by an American’s insistence on punctuality or on getting right down to business; the Brazilian would generally prefer to finish talking with colleagues first, and would not want to cut a conversation short in order to make an appointment.

Polychronism Versus Monochronism

A British businessman in Saudi Arabia is keen to secure an important deal. He has a tight schedule and cannot afford to waste time. His frustration increases because he has to wait for ages for an appointment with his Saudi partner. Meetings never start on time, and when they do, there are frequent interruptions, with people coming in to get papers signed. The Saudi partner even takes phone calls when his visitor is in the room.

From these examples, we see that the notion of waiting, linked to the perception of time, varies from one culture to the next and this may cause cultural misunderstandings. These examples show a clash between a polychronic and monochronic culture.

What is worse, for polychronic individuals, keeping an appointment does not have the same importance as it does for monochronic persons. Polychronic individuals feel that appointments can be changed and that most projects can undergo important changes until the last minute. On the contrary, in monochronic cultures, everything is organized and dominated by a very rigid conception of time: man’s social and professional life can be dominated by his or her time perception. The conception of time is linear: it can be saved, spent, wasted, or lost; it can hurry by or slow down, and so on. Not respecting the right time for activity and being inconsiderate of someone else’s time means that you are selfish, narcissistic, and ill-behaved. One advantage is that you can be accurate in dealing with a problem; a disadvantage is that the context is likely not to be taken into account.

Monochronism Versus Polychronism

“Monochrons” find it very difficult to work with “polychrons,” and vice versa. Some examples will make this very clear. Eskimos working in a factory in Alaska could not cope with the factory’s whistle that alerted them to break times, etc. In their culture, human activities are determined by the sea tides, when they will take place and how long they will last. High tide defines certain types of activities, low tide defines others.

In another example, Germans employed in Honduras complained that the factory workers came to work every day half an hour late. The answer was: yes, but they come, which is in itself exceptional. It was felt that the Germans had to no reason to complain. Aboriginal and Native Americans have typical polychronic cultures, where “talking stick” meetings can go on for as long as somebody has something to say.

People across cultures have different conceptions of time. It can be linear, cyclical, or event related. In Malaysia as well as in Latin America, for example, time is flexible and an appointment can take place before or after the agreed time. Consider, for instance, the case of a British visitor who had a meeting scheduled for ten in the morning; however, his Malaysian driver called at 8:30 A.M. because the weather was sunny, and he’d decided to get an earlier start to the day.

“Cyclical time” is based on the daily routines associated with agricultural time. With cyclical time, it is taken for granted that people should adapt to natural cycles. With event-related time, action is taken when something happens (e.g., when the roof starts leaking). In other words, action is not taken as the result of conscious planning, but as a reaction to an event. The bus does not leave when the timetable says it should, but instead when it is full. Time cannot be saved or wasted.

Characteristics of Polychronic Versus Monochronic Persons Project Management

Exhibit 1: Characteristics of Polychronic Versus Monochronic Persons Project Management

Perception of time is one of the most central differences that separate cultures and cultural ways of doing things. Project managers must cope with the diversity of mental software among members of an international project team. This diversity is likely to include widely divergent assumptions about the importance of meeting project deadlines.

Monochronic versus polychronic time perception is one culturally programmed difference of great importance for project managers. In monochronic business cultures, time is money and lost profit is usually the greatest cost of project delay. In polychronic business cultures, there is a trade-off between human relationship issues such as quality of time and traditional cost-priority issues. In practice, international project managers use a variety of strategies to cope with these opposing models of effectiveness.

Does that mean that project managers are bound to accept extensive project delays as inevitable, simply because the project team is international? Or, is it always best to enforce project deadlines regardless of culture when the cost of delay is enormous?

In North Europe and the United States, for example, it is extremely important to meet project deadlines. Projects that fall behind schedule may justify drastic action. These business cultures are known as monochronic in the international business literature. Here are some of the major components of monochronic thinking, described for Latin American business people (polychronic) trying to understand monochronic business:

  1. Time is money, so every decision, every activity, every commitment is controlled by the clock
  2. A project manager is under constant pressure to meet deadlines, and much of one’s personal life is thereby sacrificed
  3. Lack of punctuality is considered almost a disgrace, and excuses are seldom accepted
  4. Life moves by the clock, and any disrespect for time has serious repercussions
  5. In one’s everyday work-life, to succeed you must stay on time; if you step off, you are lost

Many other business cultures, however, are not so obsessed with meeting deadlines. Polychronic temporal conception, which is an alternative mental algorithm for scheduling time, places greater emphasis on personal interaction than on schedules. In polychronic cultures, a task is usually completed even if it is necessary to go beyond the time scheduled for doing so. The delay, in turn, forces the next task off schedule. Still, the people who have the next appointment are not expected to be offended or irritated by the delay, because they know that in its time, their projects will also be handled completely.

Scheduling is approximate rather than specific. For example, although an appointment guarantees that an individual will be seen, it may not guarantee when. Polychronic time runs on several tracks simultaneously. Tasks run on one time track. Personal relationships run on another track with equal urgency. Polychronic business people switch back and forth between these varieties of mental time.

Even in monochronic culture, people have an idea of this second track when they spend “quality time” with their families. “Quality time” means time focused on relationships, not business. In monochronic culture, enforcing project deadlines is accepted as legitimate if the stakes are high enough. People become accustomed to putting family needs on the back burner. When duty calls, we explain to friends and family that we have no choice but to give first priority to our work. We expect them to understand. They usually do.

Nevertheless, most of the world operates on polychronic time, so the assumptions made in the monochronic culture about respecting project deadlines are not shared in many other business cultures.

The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide)–4th Edition (Project Management Institute, 2008) describes Time Management processes in a monochronic manner, but what happens when, in multicultural projects, time is understood in a different way?

The project schedule is likely the best tool available for managing the day-to-day communication on any project. And further, one of the best ways to control a project plan is to monitor performance regularly with the use of a formal scheduling methodology.

(Fleming & Koppleman, 2005))

Understanding Our Differences and Working Together

During a certain point in my life, I found myself working 3,500 miles away from home in a completely different business and lifestyle environment. This experience gave me the opportunity to reflect upon different people’s lifestyles. Since that day, more international assignments arrived, giving me the opportunity to share my beliefs with people from other cultures, who had values deeply different from mine. During these years, I matured a valuable background that I would like to share with others. The following are some suggestions drawn directly from my experience.

Avoid Making Assumptions

Although we all hold certain preconceptions about people and we may even be guilty of negative stereotyping (e.g., considering all people from Latin America to be indolent), the important thing is to not allow these preconceptions and stereotypes to influence our behavior. Don’t make assumptions about an individual or a group; take time to get to know people and find out the correct information.

Avoid Making Instant Judgments

We tend to make immediate evaluations based on our own culture, rather than try to comprehend thoughts and feelings from the other person’s point of view; we assume our own culture or way of life is the most natural.

Different Methods in Relationship Building

When people come together to work on a task, cultures differ also with respect to the importance placed on establishing relationships early on in the collaboration. For example, Asian and Hispanic cultures tend to attach more value to developing relationships at the beginning of a shared project and more emphasis on task completion toward the end. European-Americans, instead, tend to focus immediately on the task at hand, and let relationships develop as they work on the task. This does not mean that people from any one of these cultural backgrounds are more or less committed to accomplishing the task or toward valuing relationships; it means they may pursue them differently based upon their cultural approach to time.

Take Care About Communication

First: The receiver, not the sender, defines communication. For that reason, keep questioning your assumptions about the right way to communicate:

  • Who is the message for?
  • What media should I use?
  • What is the objective of the communication?
  • What is the desired response?

Be sure you are clearly understood. When you are communicating verbally, the best way to make sure your message has been understood in the way you intended is to ask the person to whom you are talking to summarize what you have said to them. It is not sufficient simply to ask if a person understands you—they may think that they have, but may have actually taken away a different message than the one you intended. Avoid using colloquialisms and words/phrases that are frequently misunderstood.

Many issues that happen during a face-to-face communication also happen in a written communication. Think very carefully about how you use e-mails. It is not a medium to use if you have to communicate a difficult or sensitive message. For example, if you have to give someone bad news or talk to them about sensitive topics, you should talk with them face-to-face beforehand, and then, if appropriate, follow up by e-mail or letter to confirm what you have discussed.

Develop a General Understanding of Others’ Points of View

When you are in another culture, try to talk with “locals”: at restaurants, at the country club, in the shops, on the bus; you might even stop passersby in the street. Use every opportunity to learn the little traits of that culture. Get an honest opinion of any mistreatment and oppression that may have taken place in that environment. Be open to learning about people. Read the local newspaper and magazines to understand the day-to-day life of that culture.

Develop Your Cultural Sensitivity

Approaching people who think and react in a different way than you requires a good amount of sensitivity. The main purpose of developing a cultural sensitivity is mostly to gain an understanding of how cross-cultural differences impact on the work environment and can be managed so that their benefits can be maximized both for the individual and the group. Planning and working to improve your approach towards “learning” about someone is the right way to improve on the level of understanding it takes, which is the foundation to getting along with the others more quickly and more successfully. Leveraging cultural diversity and the ability to embrace differences, while learning from each other, is paramount to success.

Do Not Stereotype

Learn from generalizations about other cultures, but don’t use those generalizations to stereotype. While some aspects of cultural stereotypes might generally be true, stereotyping can easily become the sole model of how people from that culture function, oversimplifying the complexities of human behavior and leading to poor judgment. Relying too heavily on stereotypes may cause you to misread people who are the exception to the stereotype. We are most likely to hold stereotypes about groups of people whom we do not perceive to be like us and of whom we have limited experience. It is easy to see that referring to stereotypes or letting them influence our behavior can significantly impact on our relationships with others, usually in a negative way.

Build Conscientiousness

Try to reduce cultural diversities and build conscientiousness. According to Wikipedia, conscientiousness is the trait of being painstaking and careful. It includes such elements as self-discipline, carefulness, thoroughness, organization, deliberation (the tendency to think carefully before acting), and need for achievement. It is an aspect of what was traditionally called character. Conscientious individuals are generally hard working and reliable. (Wikipedia (2009, 2 March) Conscientiousness Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscientiousness) People who are highly conscientious tend follow a schedule, do things according to the plan, make plans, and stick to them.

Conclusion

Working a as part of a cross-cultural project can be quite challenging, and working as a project manager, even more so! The purpose of my presentation is to share some of my experiences, which are drawn from real-life, professional situations, as well as from my private life, and provide some advice and suggestions based on my hands-on knowledge. Many of these concepts are difficult to express in words. In order to gather a complete picture of the concepts I am presenting, you should attend our presentation to become more consciously aware of what working in multicultural teams truly means.

The simple steps mentioned in this paper are helpful to minimize challenges and maximize the benefits of international teamwork. Think about the people you are working with, take time to get to know their working style, and consider things from their point of view. Do not make assumptions and do not dismiss unfounded ideas.

Being aware of cross-cultural differences, and in particular, of our own attitudes, behaviors, and biases is essential for effective international teamwork. But being aware is only part of the process; we also need to have the skills to develop a cultural sensitivity and consistently use those skills to ensure that we communicate and work effectively with people from different backgrounds. An important point to remember is that cross-cultural teamwork is not about minimizing the differences between people. Rather, it is about making the most of the added value that a diverse team can offer.

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(Wikipedia (2009, 2 March) Conscientiousness Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscientiousness)

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2009, Giancarlo Duranti
Originally published as a part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Amsterdam, Netherlands

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