I'm someone who believes time is something that can, and should, be controlled. I view time like money – it can be saved, invested, or wasted. Wasting time really irks me. For example, while waiting, I find myself composing lists, speaking into my phone to craft an email or work on a report. Then, when the person eventually arrives, I am again irritated when I have to drop what I'm doing and re-focus.

My emphasis on timeliness underwent a real challenge recently when I went 

to the Middle East, where relationships rather than time are what matters. Nothing – the driver, room service, or any meeting – worked according to the expected time.

Having lived and traveled in this part of the world for years, I quickly fell back on behaviors that helped. For example, I remembered to ask for breakfast at 5:00AM if I wanted to eat before leaving for my 7:00AM meeting.

This made me think about other behaviors that need to be tweaked when a time-focused person tries to work successfully in a more relationship-focused culture.

When Giving a Deadline to a Project Team

In countries where people are seen as more important than time, deadlines don't have the same gravitas that they do in more controlled-time cultures. In fact, deadlines are seen as flexible and it is believed (if not overtly stated) that timelines are expected to change based on circumstances. If, for example, there is a deadline set four weeks in advance and the person in charge of the project team will be taking a two-week holiday to travel for a family wedding, it is expected that deadline will be extended to accommodate this. Issues like this happen frequently, and there are a few ways I've discovered that can help overcome the issue of deadlines or timelines that are seen as moveable feasts.

  • Involve everyone in setting the deadline. Ask that everyone submit their plans for time off. If half the staff are planning a week off, expect that the project will lose an entire week.
  • Explain to the team the importance of the timeline and who might be harmed if the job is not completed on time. For example, is there a monetary penalty or will lateness harm personal reputations? Will missing the deadline make everyone on the team look unreliable to the rest of the company?
  • Once the team has come up with what they think is an appropriate timeline, step back and consider adding extra time. Quite often, the staff has been overly optimistic in a desire to please you. Providing a little extra padding can be the difference between success and failure.
  • Follow-up to monitor progress. Be gentle when it appears that the project plan is slipping and ask what steps are being taken to get the project back on track. Since you've built some slack into the timeline, the team will have some time to take remedial action.

When Giving a Deadline to an Individual

Often when we think in terms of a deadline, we're working with one person. What is the optimal way to ensure you get a work product in the timeframe you need from someone who does not share your understanding of deadlines?

  • This may sound simplistic, but it is something us task-focused people often overlook: Listen carefully and watch body language when someone agrees that they will accomplish something by a specific date. Was the positive given because the person knew it was what you wanted to hear or do they believe that they can achieve the goal?
  • Ask the person when they think they can complete what you have requested with the necessary level of professionalism. This allows for a dialogue where you can outline your expectation for the finished product, and get a good idea of what the person thinks is reasonable. How long someone will need to write a 2-page report might be substantially different from the time a 10-page report would require.
  • Learn to ask questions in several ways to ensure you have understood what the person has meant. For example, if they said, "For sure I can have that to you by next Tuesday", you might gently probe to find out the anticipated form of the finished product. Is this a rough outline or a more thorough product?
  • If timing is critical and there is no wriggle-room in the schedule, let the person know and tell them that you will be following up to make sure the deadline is met.

What recommendations do you have for businesspeople who try to schedule deadlines or timelines with people who have a very different focus on what is important? Time-focused people like myself often do not "see" the people involved since our focus is on the goal. Relationship-oriented people, on the other hand, believe that maintaining good relationships is more important than sticking to the clock. At the same time, they understand the difference between a hard, drop-dead deadline and one imposed by someone who has forgotten the importance of the people involved.