A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Is Time on Your Side?

When time estimators meet time contractors, things can go very wrong.

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Imagine you are working in a team on a very important project, and you're dependent on others to deliver on time. In fact, the future of your job depends on a successful outcome. You email a crucial team member to inquire about his progress. He replies, “I'll ________ have it ready in two weeks”.

The following 10 words might go in the missing space:

definitely, hopefully, potentially, probably, possibly, likely, maybe, sort of, try to, unlikely.

Consider each one and put a confidence percentage next to each. If someone says "definitely," for example, you may have a 90% expectation that it will be done, while "possibly" yields only a 30% expectation.

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It is most interesting to do this exercise with a multinational group, because wide variations emerge. It shows how others encode and then decode rather differently. Just as in some cultures it is difficult for people to say "no," so in others probabilities are coded rather subtly.

Thus, to say one cannot or will not do something sounds rude or insubordinate. So the issue is coded somewhat differently: Many Brits understate, and many Americans exaggerate, but with luck they understand the codes of their peers. However, problems can arise when dealing with those who are not co-nationals and coded messages are misunderstood

But this issue is also about notions of time.

All cross-cultural researchers are aware that people think and talk about time differently in different cultures. Some countries are time-bound (Germany, Britain, Switzerland, Scandinavia)—emphasizing schedules, deadlines, time waste, time-keeping, and a fast pace—while others are time-blind (Spain, Portugal, Greece), more relaxed and casual about time.

Hence what is "late" in one society is not necessarily so in another. As societies become more time-bound, they have a more competitive attitudes toward time, and so “fast” becomes better—fast-living, fast food, and manic work behavior emphasizing catching up and not being left behind. Time-bound societies see time as linear, time-blind cultures see it as cyclical. Time-bound societies center work around clocks, schedules, delivery dates, agendas, and deadlines. This can make for serious misunderstandings at work.

Then there is the time-blind culture’s ability to distinguish between sacred and profane time. The former is for eating, family, sleeping. Profane time is used for everything else. Hence in Spain, meetings can easily be interrupted; time is not dedicated solely to the meeting. There is also the distinction between mono- and poly-chronic time. Time-bound societies are monochronic—they do one thing at a time. Time-blind societies are polychronic, blithely ignoring appointments, schedules, and deadlines, and tolerating interruptions

The understanding and use of time is crucial in business. Not only does it influence how, when, where, and why work is done, but people with conflicting ideas and theories may have very different conceptions and expectations, leading to miscommunication and animosity.

But of course, there are individual differences as well as cultural. One distinction is between the time estimator and the time contractor. To the former, “I'll see you at 6:30,” means any time around 6:30 (i.e., 6:05, 6:45) while to the latter, that time is a promise or a contract. If a time estimator is married to or works with a time contractor, all hell frequently breaks loose as their expectations and misunderstandings are challenged.

Then there is the issue of time-orientation—past, present, or future. Some people are fixated on the past, while others obsessed with the present or focused only to the future. Remembering past experiences and lessons is valuable. Concentrating on the "now” is important. Planning for the future is good. But to be always backward-looking means you miss current opportunities, and to be too future oriented, you may ignore current problems which impact how you get there.

Recently, Philip Zimbardo identified five key approaches to time perspective:

  • The past-negative type, who focus on negative personal experiences that still have the power to upset, causing feelings of bitterness and regret.
  • The past-positive type, who take a nostalgic view of the past, with a “better safe than sorry” approach that may hold them back.
  • The present-hedonistic type, who are dominated by pleasure-seeking impulses, and reluctant to postpone feeling good for later gain.
  • The present-fatalistic type, who don’t enjoy the present but feel trapped in it, unable to change the future feeling of powerlessness.
  • The future-focused type, who are ambitious, focused on goals, and have a sense of urgency

Our sense of time is shaped by personality and culture. Organizations also have distinct time cultures. Some take time-urgency seriously. For them, time is a measurable. Others seem much more relaxed. And some are amnesiac about the past, believing it pointless to look back, while others are obsessed with the future, paying top dollar for strategy consultants to predict and possibly control it.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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