Elizabeth Grace Saunders- Harvard Business Review
It’s not right or wrong to be literal or figurative; different cultures tend to have different behaviors. But when you’re managing cross-cultural teams, you must be aware of these differences. Clarify meaning before moving forward. Confirm what someone said regarding a deadline before assuming you understand. If a task needs to be completed by a hard deadline, explicitly state when you will be expecting it and that you will follow up if you do not receive it at that time: “In our meeting on Monday, you said that you could get this to me by the end of the week. My understanding is that you will email me the PowerPoint deck by 6 PM EST on Friday. Is that your understanding of the commitment?”
Listen carefully to their response. If you get anything other than an unequivocal yes, probe for more information. You may need to ask a question they could say yes to, such as, “Would it be helpful for you to have until Monday morning to deliver the deck?”
Add in cultural buffer time. When you’re working globally you have normal delays that can impede you from hitting a target deadline, but there are also other factors to consider. Sometimes there can be technology or even utility issues, like access to electricity, that can impede work. Other times there are holidays you weren’t expecting, or even months where most people are out on holiday. In fact, given that people in most countries take more time off than people in the U.S., some members of a cross-cultural team might not always available throughout the course of one project. Given time away, differing time zones, and different cultural perceptions of time, you need to plan accordingly.
Putting extra time into your deadlines is always a good idea, no matter the culture. But when you’re working across cultures, plan for even more. Instead of asking for something 24 hours in advance, ask for it 48 or 72 hours in advance. This gives you extra time to follow up before a deliverable is absolutely needed. Bigger deliverables require even more time.
Look at the work more frequently. One of the best ways to leap over communication barriers and ensure you’re truly aligned on progress and deadlines is to look at the actual work more often. Instead of checking in to ask how things are going and getting a response that may not be crystal clear, ask to see the actual work, whether that’s a spreadsheet, slide deck, status report, or other indication of tangible progress.
In situations where it’s hard to review the work, set up detailed tracking documents with quantifiable steps, such as a list of customers that need to be contacted and the dates and times at which they are called, or the number of hours spent addressing certain bug fixes, so you can see the current status and the path to completion.
Meeting deadlines with any team can be a challenge. But with cross-cultural teams the challenge peaks to a higher elevation. Of course, every country, company, team, and individual is unique, so there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. But with a better understanding of cultural norms and work styles you have a stronger chance of hitting your on-time, on-budget goal with a global team.