The approach to time in the U.S. is usually described as sequential, which can be simply summarized: People arrive to meetings on time; they focus on the present; they plan for the future; they learn from the past through 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 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 Indian society, the conception of time can be 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 versus 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 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 often has a clear distinction between his/her personal and professional life, which explains a monochronic view toward time. But in Asia, personal and professional priorities have a distinction and a link. As a culture, Asians in general give priority to family and society. Therefore, higher value is placed on group opinions rather than individuals. An individual may be viewed simply as a representative of a group where he or she originated.
Let us look at a typical work situation. When the subject of timelines, accountability and structure is approached, Americans follow a linear methodology with designated milestones to achieve results. Indians, on the other hand, tend to be fluid. They will integrate 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 so 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 and function as an effective team.
Private, professional and necessary adjustments
This approach is different from U.S. customs, where traditionally a strict boundary exists between private life and work. In 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 a.m. to 11 p.m., an extended workday that includes socializing to facilitate teamwork. Everything is intertwined.
So what could be the recommendations for 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. 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.
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.
In the U.S. mindset, time is money. With globalization, we might see an evolution on how the Indian and U.S. conceptions of time could be reconciled.
In that perspective, the corporate landscape in India has seen a shift in work culture in the past couple of decades. Indians are slowly moving from an indefinite conception of time to an on-time culture. The gap between these two conceptions of time should be reduced 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 family-oriented but, more recently, are shifting behaviors, which translates into a surge of nuclear families operating more independently from the large traditional joint family system. We are witnessing increasing awareness of a society and community consciousness. Because a sense of community demands coordination and synchronization mechanisms for collective gains, this will affect priorities and, of course, how time is managed on a daily basis.
We also believe that globalization will affect the U.S. outlook by integrating other approaches towards a more balanced lifestyle, with more time dedicated to families and social activities beyond work.
Muriel Joseph-Williams heads BrainCorp Inc., a consulting firm specialized in business development. The company guides organizations in their expansion of projects overseas. Joseph-Williams is a sought-out keynote speaker on numerous topics, is fluent in French, Spanish and English. She has published several books in France and has initiated several symposiums in regards to women empowerment in business.
Sripriyaa Venkataraman (Priya) leads the coaching practice for Tripura Multinational. Priya focuses her coaching on business coaching and cross-cultural diversity coaching. Priya works with expats and professionals to successfully navigate adaptation and cross-cultural challenges to make informed choices in personal and professional transitions.