With today’s global workforce, it’s becoming increasingly important to understand and work more effectively with people across cultures. But what happens when cultural differences about managing time interfere with the work we’re trying to accomplish?
That was certainly the case for an American manager I spoke with recently who worked for a firm that had merged with an Italian company. He was frustrated by his Italian colleagues, who were regularly late for meetings. As a result he ended up padding his schedule, adding in an hour of “slack” time, just to take into account their tardiness. This was particularly frustrating for the manager because it meant he ultimately had less time to schedule other activities and often, as a result, ended up working late to make up for missed time.
And it’s not just Americans and Italians; I’ve heard similar stories from Germans frustrated with the lack of timeliness from their Indian and Brazilian colleagues. I myself have MBA students from all over the world who often mimic the cultural norms of their countries in terms of arriving to class: the German and Swiss students arrive 10 minutes before the appointed time, and my Brazilian students saunter in well after the bell has sounded. And just the other day, I heard a story about a Japanese firm who was so frustrated with their American counterparts because of their lack of punctuality with a deadline that the conflict threatened the entire working relationship. In this case, the deliverable was only 15 minutes late.
Much has been written about the importance of appreciating and understanding differences across cultures — and how, as a global leader, it’s your job to adapt. But this is not always the case. Sometimes, it’s quite frustrating and even dysfunctional to cater to others’ differences, particularly when it means you can’t get your work done. So when do you demand compliance, and when do you just let things go? From speaking with managers and executives throughout the years, I’ve found a few key factors to consider when deciding how to handle such situations.
The first factor is the size of the disturbance. Who is being affected by this behavior and by how much? In the Italian case I presented above, it was the manager himself who was inconvenienced, as well as his family, since he often worked into the night to make up missed time. In other cases, the lateness of a deadline might mean products don’t go to market on time or investors in the company don’t receive prompt returns on their capital. The more people inconvenienced, the greater the compulsion to require compliance with your cultural norms.
A second factor is your own relative power and influence in the situation. Are you in charge? If you are, you might choose to simply demand compliance. In the case of meeting times, for example, you might simply start meetings on time, and then let stragglers catch up. Although admittedly in a very different context, I know a business school professor who closes his door at the start of class and forces latecomers to watch the class on video after the fact.
That said, this is something to consider very carefully. You may face resistance, the third factor to consider. Think about the last time someone demanded you do something against your will. Did it feel good? Did you feel positively about the other person? Did you want to “go to bat” for them and do anything you could to help them succeed?
Demanding cultural compliance — even from subordinates — can sometimes be dangerous because it can breed resentment and anger. To combat this, one of the best strategies for dealing with frustrations about time and other cultural differences, whether you’re in a position of power or not, is to suppress your need for an immediate fix to the problem and instead have patience. Many managers I’ve spoken to work on the relationship first over time. Only once they’ve established a strong working relationship do they start talking about how and why cultural differences are interfering with the work process. In other words, cultural compliance is the ultimate goal, but a strong, trusting relationship is the tool for achieving it.
In the end, cultural differences that interfere with the work you do can be tricky to manage. Smart managers realize this, and work on the relationship first before addressing the underlying cultural issues.
Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of the book Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Your Behavior across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process (HBR Press, 2013).
Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.
Post originally published at Harvard Business Review.