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.
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.