Shall We Dance or You Wanna Race?

 

What does time look like to you? Does it stretch straight ahead into the distance, measurable yet infinite? Or does it loop and circle around like a bee? Is time money and the schedule king? Or are relationships more important and time rubbery like a Dalí clock?

Of all the cultural dimensions the element of time is the one that often provokes the most immediate frustration. German managers wait in empty meeting rooms for their Mexican colleagues to arrive. UK sales executives wonder why their Arab clients aren’t attentively listening to their pitches but are taking phonecalls, signing documents, and texting on their BlackBerries. Japanese negotiators sigh into their Sapporos as their American counterparts yet again return to the business topic…

Lewis would call you a linear active if you do things one after another, multi-active if you tackle a number of different things at the same time. Trompenaars takes this a step further, defining not only how you structure time but also how you relate to it. His dimension model of sequential vs synchronic incorporates a corresponding view of past-present-future. For sequential types, time is a race, a straight line, a tangible sequence of disparate events. Time commitments are taken seriously, and staying on schedule is a must – time is a scarce resource and the meter’s always running. There’s often less room for extemporising and adapting as situations change. You’re also probably more future-oriented with less regard for what has happened in the past. Time and motion studies belong to the sequential world.

  If you’re synchronic, time is flexible and circular, a dance through a past, present and future all connected and    interrelated. Plans and time commitments are desirable rather than absolute, and easily changed. Punctuality often depends on the importance attached to someone – the lower you are down the ranks, the longer you’ll be waiting. Yet amid the maelstrom of all the bustle, things seem to fall into place right at the last minute. Just in Time management was born in highly synchronic Japan.

Trompenaars commonly uses the example of waiting to buy food in a delicatessen. Let’s continue our generalisations and say that in the US or UK, for example, you might collect a numbered ticket from a machine and patiently wait for your turn to be called. The assistant will deal with everyone in full as per their turn. A sensible and efficient system to the German or Dutch. But imagine you’re in Italy or Spain and salami’s one of the items on your list. The assistant will serve you and then ask if anyone else is waiting for salami as well. And then serve these customers as well. This is just as efficient – the salami is unwrapped just once, and the knife does not have to be washed again. This process also promotes social interaction between the group of waiting customers who have the common bond of salami.

So how does this show up in workplace behaviour? Doing several things at once, synchronous people tend to be engaged in everything going on around them. They can interrupt the work of others and are easily distracted themselves —time-consuming if not even time-wasting to the sequentially minded. Yet the synchronic type would argue that in the time it has taken the sequential person to follow their set and inflexible plan, they have attended to the task in hand, built personal relations with their clients and colleagues, and perhaps even picked up some useful information or tips to be used at a later date.

To the sequential person, social niceties can seem like time-wasting and as they rush from one engagement to the next with scarce a glance to left or right, they come across as rude to the synchronous. In turn, the synchronic person’s lack of fully individualised engagement is perceived as disrespectful…

As with everything in culture, there is no right or wrong – just different approaches. And the interculturally competent leader will be able to reconcile and harness these differences. The sequential approach can speed up and make processes transparent, but it can also be mechanistic and inhuman if taken to its extreme. Conversely, the synchronic orientation can seem chaotic and purposeless, with too much attention and time awarded to power figures.

A sprint or a tango? Time will tell…

 

FURTHER READING

  • Hampden-Turner, C. and Trompenaars, F. (2000). Building Cross-Cultural Competence
  • Hampden-Turner, C. and Trompenaars, F. (2012). Riding The Waves of Culture
  • Lewis, R. (2006). When Cultures Collide – Leading Across Cultures

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.