Are time management in India and the US compatible?

by Muriel Joseph-­Williams and Sripriyaa Venkataraman (Priya)

April 23, 2013

The approach to time in the US is usually described as sequential, which can be simply summarized: people arrive to meetings on time; they focus on present; they plan for the future; they learn from the past with brief analysis. The emphasis is on continuously moving forward. This is typical to a monochronic approach to time.

However, Americans are often surprised that their concept of time is not commonly shared throughout the world. How people interact with time is actually a reflection of predominant values in a society. In other parts of the world, the relation to time is synchronic, which means that the past, present and future are equally important. So if in these cultures you set up a meeting and something comes up at the same time of this meeting, one can prioritize the current event over the prior commitment. In the Indian society, the conception of time is even more complex. In fact, their view of time is polychronic, which means that one fraction of time is including past, present and future.

Monochronic vs. polychronic

Indians, as a polychronic culture, tend to place more emphasis on quality of relationships and their overall impact than on a specific construct such as time. There is definitely less sense of urgency when they hear the word “timelines” and “deadlines” as their approach is to produce quality results in a harmonious manner throughout.

In the western world, an individual has a clear distinction between his/her personal and professional life, which explains a monochronic view towards time. But in Asia, it is embracive, where personal and professional priorities have a distinction, yet a link. As a culture, Asians give priority to family and society. Therefore, higher value is placed on group opinions rather than individuals. Actually, an individual is viewed simply as a representative of a group where (s) he originated.

Let us look at a typical work situation, between an American and his Indian counterparts. When the subject of timelines, accountability and structure is approached, the Americans follow a linear methodology with designated milestones to achieve results. Indians, on the other hand, tend to be very fluid. They will integrate their work, family and group commitments to reach a goal in an approach that, from an unaccustomed outlook, might appear erratic.

As polychronic, Indians tend to multitask: they divide their time and workday to embrace various responsibilities oscillating between personal and professional focuses. But this does not indicate that they cannot prioritize. They do when necessary. A polychronic culture finds a distinction between professional and personal unrealistic and artificial. In this type of environment, people tend to conceive all areas of their lives as a whole and as an extension. For instance, in many occasions, they will socialize outside the work setting in an attempt to build strong trust relationships in order to function as an effective team.

Private, professional, and necessary adjustments

This approach is very different from the US customs where a strict boundary exists between private life and work. In the Indian culture, a loose mix exists between what is private and what is professional. For instance, during a recruiting process, it is totally acceptable to start with family related questions. Working hours go from 9:00 am till 11:00 pm, a very extended workday that includes socializing to facilitate teamwork. So everything is intertwined.

So what could be the recommendations to expatriates who are relocating to work in India or companies that are looking to do business in India?

First, they should anticipate some roadblocks and unexpected limits until they have learned how to operate within the culture.  In addition, instead of exclusively targeting outcomes, it would be more productive to nurture relationships and build trust. Empowered local employees will feel emotionally connected to the company and its leaders, an ideal combination in the Indian culture. It means that a typical “follow the process” attitude will have few chances to be successful in an environment where flexibility is an appropriate tactic. This will require an understanding on how Indians relate to time and work. Giving them latitude to integrate their flexible approach will produce better results.

Towards compatibility?

In the US mindset, time is money. With globalization, we might see an evolution on how the Indian and US conceptions of time could be reconciled.

In that perspective, the corporate landscape in India has seen a shift in work culture in the last couple of decades. Indians are slowly moving from an indefinite conception of time to an On TIME culture. Therefore, the gap between these two conceptions of time will reduce in few more years. Already we can see and sense the change among younger generations, who are more easily influenced by the pace of the western world.

As a culture, Indians have been very family-oriented but, more recently, they are slowly shifting their behaviors, which translates into a surge of nuclear families that are operating more independently from the large traditional joint family system. We are witnessing increasing awareness of a society and community consciousness. Since a sense of community demands coordination and synchronization mechanisms for collective gains, this will impact priorities and, of course, how time is managed on a daily basis.

There will be a new arbitrage on how people will use their time between working for the community instead of focusing on their family exclusively and this norm will probably be integrated in Indians’ lives at a larger scale. We also believe that globalization will impact the US outlook by integrating other approaches towards a more balanced lifestyle, with more time dedicated to families and social activities beyond work.

Muriel Joseph-­Williams 

Sripriyaa Venkataraman (Priya) leads the Coaching Practice for Tripura Multinational. Priya focuses her coaching on two specific areas: Business Coaching and Cross Cultural Diversity Coaching.

As a Cross Cultural Diversity Coach, Priya works with expats and professionals to successfully navigate their adaptation and cross cultural challenges to make informed choices in their Personal and Professional transition. She also focuses on professionals who like to accelerate their integration into a new environment, and utilize the power of diversity and coaching to reach their goals faster.


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