Elizabeth Grace Saunders- Harvard Business Review
My friend likes to tell the story of what happened when she planned for a cross-cultural group of people to meet up to go to the lake when they were on holiday in Europe. As she tells it, the Germans arrived 10 minutes early, the Belgians arrived exactly on time, the Americans a few minutes later, and the Lebanese rolled in about an hour after everyone else had arrived.
All of these individuals believed they had arrived at the appropriate time.
No one was stressed out by their own actions, except maybe the Germans, who are usually determined to arrive first. But the earlier arrivals were a bit bemused by their colleagues, who apparently operated in a different time zone.
Although this may sound like a simple holiday anecdote, when different cultural definitions of “on time” spill over to professional projects, people’s reactions can be less than jovial. As a time management coach who has worked with clients across the globe, I’ve seen that there are varying ways of perceiving deadlines and timeliness in various cultures. But not understanding or effectively managing these different ways of working can lead to frustration, stress, and missed deadlines. What’s more, miscommunication about time can eventually destroy trust in professional relationships because of consistently unmet expectations.
There are a number of reasons these 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?
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 nothing but good intentions. When you’re managing a cross-cultural team, don’t assume that individuals will share your worldview — or even understand requests in the way you intend them. 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. For example, if you’ve asked your team for a status update and they submit it later than requested, use the Crucial Conversations model to find out more information. State the facts, tell your story, and ask for others’ stories:
When I told you it was important to have the status update by Friday at noon, I expected that you would send me all you had by that point so that I would have two hours to review it before meeting with the executive team. When you sent it to me at 1:50 PM after I contacted you multiple times, I felt a great deal of stress because I had limited time to review and route it. What was happening on your end that caused you to send the update later than requested?
You may discover that the work had been done but the person didn’t feel comfortable sending it without the approval of a superior who was in a meeting. Or you may find that they thought it was more important to make maximum progress than on-time delivery. By asking questions, you can understand your team members’ values and perspectives, helping you to adjust your requests in the future and your team to better understand your needs.
Clarify the time frame. When I hear someone say, “I’ll be there in five minutes,” I take that to mean they will arrive “in about five minutes.” When someone writes, “I’ll reply to you tomorrow,” I take that to mean the next day. But not everyone thinks this way. For some, “five minutes” could mean anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour, and “tomorrow” means sometime in the immediate future — maybe.