Welcome! My name is Joost Thissen and I am an Interculturalist. Here I share columns and insights for those of us who work in culturally diverse and global workplaces.
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Culture impacts action and time systems and this can cause cultural differences in perceived efficient behaviour between culturally diverse groups of people. Let us have a look at a business scenario.
A manager flew in from Australia and arrived for her meeting with the Indian CEO of a Finance corporation in Gurgaon. The meeting was scheduled from 10.30 am to 11.30 to discuss their contract continuation. The receptionist said that the CEO was currently in another meeting but would be with her shortly. After 15 minutes she saw the CEO walking towards her, while absorbed in a conversation with another person. When he saw her, he greeted her warmly. He introduced her to the other person and inquired how her trip had been so far. After talking for 5 minutes, the CEO asked if she preferred to wait in his office, he would be with her shortly?
After waiting for another 15 minutes in his office, the CEO appeared and their meeting started. A short while later there was a knock at the door. His secretary interrupted and said that to the CEO that he had a phone-call. The Manager could not help overhearing that the conversation was about personal matters and not at all seemed urgent. The CEO was talking to a relative about a family dinner later that week.
By 11.10 am the Manager and the CEO finally started their meeting only to be interrupted at 11.20 by another phone call. Whilst talking on the phone the CEO flicked through the contract document, his body language showing signs of approval or disapproval as he read. Just as the CEO put down the phone, the Indian CFO walked in to discuss the end of year financials. After the CFO had left the CEO suggested to the Manager that they continue the meeting over lunch at a well-known local restaurant.
At this point the Manager was slightly annoyed: she now had to phone her next appointments to reschedule, as she would clearly not be able to make her afternoon meetings. She worried as her schedule for the next two days was already rather full. During lunch they were interrupted yet again when a Malaysian business colleague passed by. The CEO asked him to join them for lunch as there were still a couple of outstanding issues with the Malaysian subsidiary.
By this time, the Manager was getting frustrated with the CEO: he was so disorganised and clearly couldn’t focus on the task at hand. So, what was going on?
This Manager and CEO seem to live in two vastly different worlds and use quite different time and action systems. Culture impacts on our action and time systems, which usually guides our perceived efficient behaviour of others.
The linear-active system
The Manager seems to display cultural traits that uses ‘linear-active’ system: she is highly task-oriented and does one thing at time in a sequence that is planned beforehand. This, to her, is the most efficient way to get things done: The gym at 7 am, breakfast at 8.15 am, taxi at 8.45 am for her 9.00 – 10.00 am meeting, followed by 10.30 – 11.30 meeting, lunch, 12 – 1 pm the first afternoon meeting and so on. The CEO had disrupted her entire day and schedule with his lack of keeping time.
The multi-active system
The CEO on the other hand, seems to display traits of a ‘multi-active’ system: he is rather people-oriented and does several things at once in a seemingly unplanned order. He finds that he gets more done this way. The CEO places less importance on schedules and punctuality: interruptions during a scheduled meeting are considered quite normal and acceptable to people who adhere to this system.
The reality for the CEO might have been the meeting with the Manager felt unfinished . Multi-active people don’t really like to leave conversations unfinished – hence the lunch invitation. However, during this one (extended) meeting the CEO had managed to arrange wedding details for his sister, make an appointment with a long-lost business acquaintance, pre-brief the CFO for their next meeting, and deal with the Malaysian office…
Not bad – he felt he had achieved a lot. He did not understand however, why the Manager had become rather tense and impatient…
Culture impacts preferred action and time systems and cause cultural differences in perceived efficient behaviour. When people from linear-active cultures deal with people from multi-active cultures both might experience frustration or confusion due to each other’s behaviour. Tension starts to rise when both parties do not understand what is going on and therefore not being able to adapt. Unfortunately, adaptation can only happen when people realise that time and action systems are impacted by culture and causes differences in behaviour.
Next time, the manager wants to meet with the CEO, it might be wise to look at some cultural behavioural strategies to better deal with the differences: to call the secretary first to find out his whereabouts and accommodate his scheduled meeting times: when the CEO is having lunch, which venue meetings or luncheons take place. Accidentally bumping into the CEO and have him suddenly realise that he has something urgent to discuss with her seems to be extremely efficient…
Source: Lewis (1996) The Cross Cultural Communication Model.
Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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