In her book The Culture Map, global workplace expert Erin Meyer talks about one particular keynote speech she had to give to an audience in Brazil. Her remarks were slated to last 60 minutes, but the client said she could take all the time she needed.
Meyer didn’t quite believe him. After all, during just about any keynote address in America, you can expect a firm index card countdown:
“10 minutes remaining”
“5 minutes remaining”
“2 minutes remaining”
At “0 minutes remaining,” you’d better get off that stage!
Meyer took 65 minutes to give her Brazilian speech and had a great time responding to questions from an appreciative audience. At the end, though, her client said, “It was great, but it ended so early. You certainly could have gone longer—they were loving it!”
Meyer was confused. “But you gave me 60 minutes," she said. "It would be disrespectful to the group if I took more time than pre-scheduled without getting your permission.”
“But in this situation, we are the customer,” the Brazilian replied. “We're paying you to be here. If you see that we have more questions and would like to continue the discussion, isn’t it good customer service to extend the presentation in order to meet our needs?”
What Is Your Time Culture?
This simple anecdote illustrates the enormous impact of differing attitudes toward time in the workplace. And it’s not just a country thing. Every office in the world—large or small—has a unique culture in regards to time and scheduling. For one company, it may be typical to start a meeting 10 or 15 minutes late, while in another, this practice would be frowned upon. Some organizations encourage hour-long lunch breaks, while others subtly expect that employees will eat at their desks unless it’s a special occasion.
In the classic book, The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time, anthropologist and author Edward T. Hall explained the difference between monochronic (M-time) cultures and polychronic (P-time) cultures. M-time cultures view time as tangible and concrete. “We speak of time as being saved, spent, wasted, lost, made up, crawling, killing and running out," Hall wrote. "These metaphors must be taken seriously.”
By contrast, P-time cultures take a flexible approach to time, the involvement of people, and the completion of transactions. “Appointments are fluid," Hall wrote. "A person who lives in P-time will suggest a general, approximate time without nailing down the exact moment the meeting will take place.”
As you'd probably expect, most U.S. businesses fall on the side of M-time, but there's great variation among companies. For this reason, it's important to be conscious of what Meyer terms the “scheduling style” of your business and the partner businesses with which you work. The first step here is attention, then assimilation: Watch how people operate, learn what scheduling styles make them most productive, then adapt your operations and expectations accordingly.
For instance, if you're managing employees who come from business environments where it's acceptable to be approximate on delivery times, observe whether their style is working with your customers before insisting that they change it to be more precise. If you decide that delivery times must be set in stone, approach your employees diplomatically, and explain your rationale and the big picture behind your decision.
As the business's owner, you can avoid snafus from the very beginning by establishing an expected “time culture” with your employees. Develop explicit rules regarding what is and isn't acceptable when it comes to deadlines and other time issues, and open an earnest (and not cynical) dialogue about scheduling and time management during an employee meeting. Make sure every team member understands and verbally agrees with your guidelines, and be sure to convey this information one-on-one as you hire new workers.
Once you've established your expectations, if your time culture seems to be slipping, re-communicate your expectations periodically, and don’t waver. You’ll be surprised how adaptable people can be when prompted!
Read more articles on company culture.