Cultural Bodyclock: How to Adjust to Polychronic or Monochronic Time Perception

Research by Harvard Business Review found that

“between 10% and 20% of all U.S. managers sent abroad returned early because of job dissatisfaction or difficulties in adjusting to a foreign country.”

One of the primary adjustments to make as a manager in a foreign country is adjusting one’s bodyclock to the culture’s time perception.

As we’ve learned these past few weeks, polychronic and monochronic cultures operate according to clocks that have been set very differently – not just in two different time zones, but more like in two different space-time continuums.

Polychronic cultures have a more fluid view of time, while in monochronic cultures, time is linear.

If you’re sent to manage a company in another country, you might need to acquire – or at least adjust to – their view of time.

But you can’t just reset your watch, so how do you make these adjustments actionable?

Being a Monochron

For those coming from a polychronic culture into a monochronic culture, you might proactively focus on these aspects of time perception:

  • Punctuality and organization – both the manager and the staff know their schedule in advance and are expected to be prompt at meetings. Punctuality is key to keeping everything else on track, like a well-oiled machine.
  • Time management tools – many countries in monochronic cultures use time management tools to keep joint calendars as a team and stay on task. Tools like Scoro, Asana, and Trello come to mind.
  • Linear activities – monochronic time systems move one step at a time. Once one task is completed and accounted for, an employee can move onto the next, ensuring focus and efficiency.
  • Individual drive and achievement – individual successes are celebrated, both personally and by the company (think “employee of the month”). This motivates personal drive and performance.
  • Meeting deadlines – deadlines in monochronic cultures are hard stops. Work is expected to be completed promptly by deadline in a task-oriented fashion.

If you, as a polychron, can tune into these time- and motivation-related aims, you will be a more successful manager in a monochronic culture.

Being a Polychron

For those coming from a monochronic culture into a polychronic culture, you might proactively focus on these aspects of time perception.

  • Interactionrelationships and personal connections are a normal part of the workday. While tasks are set, personal interaction with colleagues and clients is expected and often prioritized.
  • Integrated activities – multitasking is common, and tasks are completed in an integrated and often leisurely fashion, with those who have finished their tasks pulling in to help others.
  • Group effort – as mentioned above, tasks are more often a group effort, as polychronic businesses often have a flat management structure where peer support is encouraged. Thus, individual recognition isn’t so important as group recognition.
  • Flexibility – there is a more flexible agenda in polychronic cultures, with employees not worrying too much about a hard deadline.
  • High context communication – all crucial information is shared, along with background information, and often in a manner where tone and visual cues are emphasized and interpreted.

When stepping into another culture’s time perception, making pointed actionable adjustments will help you adjust your bodyclock in a concrete way to a foreign culture.

Nature’s Timeline: Polychrons and Time Perception

A new factory opened up in Alaska, and several Inuits were hired on to work.

To alert everyone to the workday schedule, a whistle would ring throughout the factory.

When it was time for lunch, the whistle. Before a fifteen-minute break, whistle. When the workday was over, whistle.

By the end of the week, every single Inuit had quit. They could not abide by this angry whistle.

Their culture is not run according to a rigid schedule but rather by the tides. 

The tides are what dictate human activities, particularly harvesting mussels in the ice sheets when the tide is low.

So to the Inuits, time and human activity are determined by nature…not by man and his whistle. 

Last week, we talked about how monochrons value time as something tangible.

But for polychrons, time is valued on a whole different scale.

Polychronic Time

Consider a race track.

Several horses run on the same track at different speeds, each in their own lane.

This is similar to how polychrons view time.

Often, in a polychron’s mind, there are several simultaneous lanes on the same track: different tasks, running at the same time on their own lanes.

One lane has a work agenda, with tasks approximately scheduled.

Another has a personal agenda, with relationships being of equal import as work.

There is a push-and-pull between various mental lanes in a polychron’s timeline track.

Polychrons and Agendas

Polychrons view human relationships and quality time as more important than cost-priority issues.

If you attend a meeting in a country with a polychronic time perception, like Mexico or India, for example, you should not expect the meeting’s agenda to start on time.

Instead, what you should expect is to partake in a long period of socializing before the meeting even starts, usually over tea or coffee. 

This is to build rapport and start off on the right foot.

Before modern industrialization, this is how many European countries perceived time too.  

Running a tight ship, schedule-wise, was not so essential to the bottom line, whereas personal interaction was commonplace and just as important as the agenda.

You can still see this in the cultures of southern European countries, like Italy or Spain.

Polychrons and Deadlines/Appointments

There is no deadline obsession in polychronic cultures. 

Due to not prioritizing deadlines, other scheduled tasks are then delayed as well.

Those who expect something done in polychronic cultures take these delays easier than a monochron might. They are not put off or annoyed by the delays, because they accept this is how things go.

Though a task might go over the scheduled time in a polychronic culture, it will usually be completed…just within its own time.

Appointment times too are an approximation.

Although everyone will be seen, it likely won’t be as per schedule.

Polychron vs. Monochron

Considering these vastly different perceptions of time, you can see why polychronic and monochronic cultures might butt heads when it comes to business matters.

Next week, we’ll talk more about how to bridge the divide.

“Time is Money”: Monochrons and Time Perception

A German manager was sent to Honduras to monitor a factory for his company.

Every single day, the factory workers showed up a half-hour late.

He held a meeting with the workers and brought this issue up, expecting to see some changes.

Nothing.

He created an incentive for being on time, offering a raise at year’s end to those who were punctual.

Nothing.

He implemented a sliding scale of punishment for tardiness, with a three-strike rule.

Nothing.

He laid down the law and fired a worker who was exceptionally late on a regular basis.

Still, the next day, workers did not punch in on time.

No matter how often he insisted that they be punctual, nothing changed.

He complained to his Honduran co-manager about this issue, and she shrugged, saying, “They may be late, but at least they show up. That, in and of itself, is rare.”

This is where monochrons and polychrons butt heads, and the frustration is very real.

Last week, we touched on the differences between monochronic and polychronic cultures.

This post will go into deeper detail about what to expect from monochronic employees or managers.

What to Expect from a Monochron

As the above example shows, monochrons – whose cultures are prominently found in Northern Europe, North America, and parts of Asia – are time-sensitive.

Time is strictly divided: there is a time for fun and a time for work.

As Project Management Institute describes it, monochrons treat time as:

“a commodity of high value, as necessary as or perhaps even more important than satisfaction, good work, and relationships.”

Time is as tangible as any other commodity, as the phrase, “Time is money,” suggests.

Time can be wasted. It can be saved. It can be killed. It can be lost. It can won.

This perspective of time results in monochrons having a stricter and more stressful relationship with the clock and, as such, they try to use their time effectively, often focusing on completing one task at a time.

As studies show, doing so is actually a more productive use of time than multitasking.

Studies indicate that multitasking is less efficient because we are less focused, resulting in shallower learning and lower achievement and productivity. 

In fact, one study showed that only 2.5 percent of people are effective multitaskers.

The fact that monochronic cultures eschew multitasking for a more focused approach indicates that they are instinctively making the most effective use of time.

A monochron’s linear thinking and proclivity to strict schedules, with a focus on one event following another (think a timetable or meeting agenda, etc.), exemplifies this.

Get It Done

Monochrons emphasize getting things done.

Punctuality. Precision. Productivity.

These are the keys to success in a monochronic culture.

Managing time to use it more efficiently results in greater productivity and, thus, greater success.

So, here’s a pro tip if you are attending a meeting with an international colleague: understand their time perspective and meet their expectations.

If they are from a monochronic culture, arrive early, be prepared, and adhere to the agenda.

Cultural Time Orientation: How Timeline-Oriented Cultures View Time

Do you have the time to talk about time?

You should, because understanding cultural concepts of time matters a great deal to cross-cultural relations.

Time-orientation researchers Alexander Gonzalez and Phillip Zimbardo wrote:

“Every child learns a time perspective that is appropriate to the values and needs of his society.”

Time is directly linked to a society’s values and needs. It is of the utmost importance to cultural understanding.

As we’ve discussed these past few weeks, the way a society views time can explain a lot about their cultural baobab.

For instance, those who are past-oriented value tradition; those who are present-oriented value instant gratification; and those who are future-oriented value goals and long-term benefits.

One last type of time orientation is timeline cognitivity.

Let’s take a look at how timeline-oriented cultures view and value time.

Timeline-Oriented Values

“Time is a wave or a black hole could not bend it; humanity rides the crest of an infinite number of waves that are perceived as linear in their limited frame of reference.” ― Ken Poirot

Timelines are linear, as are timeline-oriented cultures.

They view everything in linear terms with a linear frame of reference.

Individuals in such societies tend to be very detail-oriented but struggle to absorb and understand multiple events simultaneously.

Timeline-oriented cultures also tend to be monochronic, completing one task at a time.

Individuals from such cultures are generally not prone to multitasking.

Monochronic, timeline-oriented cultures value schedules and demonstrate strict time management.

The Devil is in the Details

Differing views on time influence global communications and affairs, necessitating some cross-cultural understanding and diplomacy on the matter.

When it comes to managing or negotiating across cultures, some knowledge of and practice in dealing with these differences in time perspectives and communication styles is key to succeeding in business.