Managing different approaches to timekeeping across cultures

photo, clock As someone who works around the World, I am well used to different concepts of timekeeping. Appointments may start bang on time in Switzerland or up to a day late (as in one memorable experience) in the Middle East.

As someone who is always on time myself I was initially frustrated by this but I quickly learned that, as an external supplier or visitor, I could not expect a company, a culture or even an individual to change to my norms on timekeeping for the duration of my visit.

Often, in working across cultures, we cannot change other people, only how we feel about the difference. Today I am always on time because that makes me happy, but I am relaxed about other people’s different approach to timekeeping.

I have learned some tricks to cope. I usually start workshops when 80% of people have arrived and leave myself some flexibility on content and agenda. I can adapt my content and style to a variety of differences.

My most challenging group on punctuality was actually a matter of corporate culture not national culture: a group of people in the advertising industry who were so creative (in their own minds at least) that they could not get back from breaks on time or focus enough to stay in the room for an hour.

The VP in charge of the group sidled up to me after lunch and said “We must be driving you mad”. I answered “Not really, I am used to it, and frankly I am getting paid the same to work less. I am just disappointed for you that you will miss 25% of the value of the day.”

He was shocked, as though it was a surprise that if we lost two hours to timekeeping we could, therefore, do less in the remaining six. He tried frantically to get people back on time for the rest of the day, but failed.

I have a similar reaction to people who come to me at the beginning of a two day workshop and say “I can’t make the second day afternoon – will I miss anything?” My answer is always: “about a quarter of the program.”  People also ask “is that OK”, I always say that I can’t possibly judge their other priorities, but I can confirm that they will miss a quarter of the learning.

If you are in a position of power you can get others to adapt to you. One of my bosses in my corporate career quickly changed our department culture of “15 minutes late” by making his expectations clear and giving immediate and very direct feedback.

What can be difficult is dealing with frustrations within groups of participants, particularly those not used to working across cultures. The Swiss participants who are ready at 9:00 feel disrespected by the Indian delegate who arrives 20 minutes late because in Switzerland (though not necessarily in India) being late is a sign of disrespect.

People who are on time often feel “punished” by waiting for people who are late. It’s a tough one for a facilitator to cope with. If you start dead on time but a third of delegates are not there it can be difficult to get everyone brought into the workshop effectively without repetition. If it becomes a problem we often use it as a mini cross-cultural case study, discussing the differences and perceptions and developing group norms. This can often solve the problem in the short term.

It’s also a good practice to design the beginning of a workshop so that you don’t get into critical content in the first 20 minutes so that people who arrive late may miss introductions but not information that is critical to the rest of the program.

My advice to external facilitators is not to take responsibility for the timekeeping of their delegates. They are adults and have to make their own decisions on priorities. I am not going to run around chasing them but I will design in some flexibility to the program when I expect this to be a challenge.

Why not….?

  • How do you cope with different ideas of punctuality in your organization? Why not share your ideas in the comments box below?
  • Find out more about our cross cultural training.

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