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 for a meeting, I find myself composing lists, speaking into my phone to craft an email, or working 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 can be a real challenge when working across cultures. I’ll never forget the years I spend living in and traveling in the Middle East, where developing interpersonal relationships is valued more than following a strict schedule. While I was there, nothing—the driver, room service, or any meeting—was “on time.”

To adapt to the cultural differences around timeliness, I quickly needed to learn to adapt my behavior and expectations. For example, I discovered I had to ask for breakfast at 5:00AM if I wanted to eat before leaving for a 7:00AM meeting.

Of course, there are other behaviors that need to be tweaked when a time-focused person tries to work successfully in a more relationship-focused culture, but it’s not always easy to understand such cultural differences without proper cultural training.

Cultural Differences in Deadlines

In countries where people and relationships are considered more important than timeliness, 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 them. I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it can be to work across cultures when one team sets strict deadlines and the other is flexible.

Setting Deadlines on Relationship Oriented Teams

Discrepancies between relationship oriented cultures and time oriented cultures are not uncommon in the international business world, but I’ve discovered a few ways to help overcome the ‘issue’ of loosely kept deadlines and timelines. Here are a few ways to ease the impact of this cultural difference when working with a team:

  • 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 the missing 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.

Setting Deadlines with Relationship Oriented Individuals

Often when we think in terms of a deadline, we’re working with one person. Here are a few strategies to help you successfully work through cultural differences and get work done in the necessary timeframe:

  • This may sound simplistic, but it’s something us time-focused people often overlook: Listen carefully and watch body language when someone agrees that they will accomplish a task by a specific date. Was the positive given because the person knew it was what you wanted to hear? Or do they seem confident 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 you can get a good idea of what the person thinks is reasonable.
  • Learn to ask questions in several ways to ensure you have understood what the person has meant. For example, if they said, “I can have that to you by next Tuesday,” you might gently probe to find out the anticipated form of the finished product. Will it be 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.

Working across cultures—especially when each culture places a different emphasis on deadlines—can be tricky. Time-focused people like myself often do not “see” the people and relationships 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. Proper cultural awareness training and tools like RW3 CultureWizard’s Culture Calculator will improve your chances of international business success by helping you learn to adapt to different cultural values, without losing sight of your own.

Learn more about working effectively with others.