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Monochronic Time versus Polychronic Time

By Tanja Saarinen Chávez

01 August 2023

Mastering Time Orientation: A Key Leadership Skill for Boosting Team Productivity

Understanding time orientations is a crucial attribute for leaders. A leader's success is not only based on their hard skills, but also on their understanding and acceptance of different time perspectives and cultural differences in their team.
 
Time orientation is the way people and cultures understand and deal with time. It affects work habits, communication methods, and decision-making.
 
Understanding the different ways in which team members perceive time is essential for a leader operating in a multicultural environment. Such awareness can have a remarkable influence on the leader's effectiveness and the overall productivity of the team.
 
Let's start by understanding what are the two different concepts of time and how these perceptions of time can influence daily interaction in the workplace.
 

Monochronic Time versus Polychronic Time

 
Monochronic and polychronic time orientations are two opposite ways people perceive and manage time. In other words, attitudes towards time are different.
 
Monochronic time orientation is when you're all about being punctual, following schedules, and focusing on one task at a time. The focus is more on long-term orientation. Most Western cultures embrace the monochronic, linear approach to time. 
 
Think of it as being a stickler for time and efficiency. Time is money. It's about controlled time. For example, if you have a business meeting at 2 pm, you make sure to arrive at the dot and stick to the agenda without any interruptions. It's all about being organized and getting things done linearly, and focusing on future goals.
 
People from monochronic time orientation cultures often follow time strickly.
 
Now, in contrast, polychronic time orientation is more relaxed and flexible. It's more about short-term time orientation. It's when you focus on multitasking and prioritize personal relationships alongside your work tasks. Meeting times are more fluid, for example after breakfast or before the evening prayer.
 
Polychronic time is mostly present in Eastern cultures. Good examples of cultures with more flexible attitudes towards time are India, Mexico and Saudi-Arabia. 
 
Let's say you come from a short-term oriented culture. You have a colleague who drops by your office for a chat while you're in the middle of an email. Instead of being annoyed, you take the time to have a conversation because building relationships is important to you.
 
You're not so worried about sticking strictly to the clock because you value human connection and adaptability. The future orientation is not as present as in monochronic cultures, and creating long-term goals, for example, six months ahead is not common. This is because life is unpredictable; how can you plan so far in the future?
 
In daily working life, monochronic cultures might prefer to work alone in a quiet space following a carefully planned schedule. They'll tackle tasks one by one, making sure to finish them before moving on to the next.
 
People from polychronic cultures, on the other hand, may embrace a more collaborative and flexible work environment. They might have multiple projects going on simultaneously, switching between tasks as needed and being open to interruptions or impromptu meetings.
 
Social time is important, especially since the pace of life is more relaxed and nurturing interpersonal relationships are important. Another thing to notice is that often people from flexible time orientation cultures like to delegate time to discuss their personal lives. 
 
Both long-term and short-term oriented cultures have their strengths and can be effective depending on the situation. It's important to recognize and respect these differences in order to communicate and work effectively with colleagues from various cultural values and backgrounds.
 
Now, let's explore why it is essential for a leader to understand and accommodate different dimensions of time, with some practical examples.
 
Before moving on why it is important to time orientation as a leader, I suggest reading my previous blog post about linear and flexible time orientation on this blog post. 
 
In polychronic cultures, following time is more flexible and fluid.
 

Why Is It Important to Understand Time Orientation as a Leader?

 
Understanding how people naturally perceive and experience time, also known as time perspective inherent, is valuable for leaders in multicultural work environments with people from different cultural backgrounds. It's about how your team members view time and its significance in their daily lives. It is one of the major components to leverage cross-cultural differences.
 
As a leader, having the ability to recognize and accommodate different orientations from both Western and Eastern cultures is essential for fostering an effective team. Being able to implement different time management strategies, you as a leader can increase the productivity of your team and utilize your team members' strengths.
 
Next, you will learn some practical examples of how understanding different views of time can help you as a leader.
 

1. Effective Communication

 
As we just established, different individuals and national cultures perceive time in distinct ways. For instance, if you have team members from a linear time-oriented culture, they may expect meetings to start promptly and adhere strictly to the schedule. Employees from monochronic cultures expect the leader to control and respect time in the meetings.
 
Team members from a more flexible time-oriented culture may prefer meetings that are more fluid and allow for natural discussions. These meetings may go beyond the scheduled time to foster relationships and build trust. They expect the leader to allow space for informal chatting to build relationships with people.
 
Recognizing and respecting the time orientation of team members demonstrates empathy and cultural sensitivity. When you understand your team's expectations and preferences, you can communicate more effectively and build strong relationships with them.
 

2. Realistic Planning and Increased Productivity

 
Understanding the attitude toward time within your multicultural team can help you set achievable goals and deadlines. While goal-setting is important for any team, the time frames for achieving goals may differ across cultures.
 
Linear time-oriented team members may thrive with detailed plans, fixed schedules and long-term goals and project deadlines that are set far in the future, even years from now. They may also expect to set short-term goals that are achievable within months or weeks.
 
Employees from cultures with a flexible time orientation are more likely to succeed when they have more independence and the ability to change their approach as the situation changes, allowing them to adjust their plans quickly if necessary.
 
Finally, employees from monochronic cultures prefer working on one task at a time, while those from polychronic cultures are more comfortable working on multiple tasks simultaneously.
 
Balancing these approaches can ensure deadlines are met without causing unnecessary stress or sacrificing quality.
 

3. Conflict Resolution

 

Conflicts can arise when team members with contrasting time orientations clash over deadlines or expectations. One of the most common conflicts occurs when a linear time-oriented team member expects a task to be completed by a specific deadline and a flexible time-oriented team member prioritizes addressing urgent issues first. 
 
One way to address that is to encourage breaks for social interactions. This can foster stronger relationships and improve overall team cohesion, ultimately contributing to greater productivity. This approach may be different from time-oriented cultures, where scheduled breaks are more common. However, as a culturally intelligent leader, it can be an effective way to demonstrate your understanding of your team members' needs and values. 
 
Understanding these differences helps you as a leader to mediate disputes, reduce cultural misunderstandings, and ensure that all team members' perspectives are taken into account.
 
A leader who understands different perceptions of time can create a diverse work environment with good communication and high productivity.
 
Of course, understanding other cultural dimensions and cultural norms is essential since together they provide insight to understand the complexity of culture. If you want to learn more about the top mistakes in intercultural communication, I highly recommend clicking on this blog post. 
 
 

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