Cultures considered to be monochronic are those that stress completing one task before embarking on the next. On the opposite end, there are polychronic cultures, in which people tend to do various tasks simultaneously. The United States and Canada tend to be fairly monochronic, while Mexico tends to be polychronic. Some cultures mix both styles, such as the Japanese, who are monochronic when it comes to work, and polychronic in social situations.
Secret to Production
When the two styles are in contact with one another, they tend to produce stressful situations. For example, years ago I interviewed a construction foreman from Denver, Colorado. An Anglo-Saxon man with a very definite monochronic style, he told me that he mostly hired Mexican construction workers, because they were “consistently superior” to other workers.
However, his objection was that “while they work they are always playing the radio, and cannot stop chatting with one another.”
When I asked him if they were still good, productive workers, he acknowledged it was indeed the case “but imagine how much more they could produce if they could fully concentrate on their work.”
I was never able to convince him that: a) there is no known study that says that concentrating on one activity will make you more productive, and b) if they were not allowed to play the radio or talk to one another they might actually become less productive.
To Each His Own
Each style brings advantages and added value to a given work environment. For example, the monochronic style makes planning usually easier, since it is a linear model. Thus, monochronic people can usually better predict how long it will take to finish a task, and just as important, can more easily reject a request for additional work.
On the other hand, polychronic people, if they manage their style correctly, can be more productive since they use their time to work on more than one task. A polychronic person can more easily adapt to jobs such as interpreters (listening in one language while speaking in another), or as a receptionist who acts as telephone operator and secretary simultaneously. In essence, they bring added value because they can produce more in the same amount of time.
The weakness of the polychronic style is that if not well managed, it can simply create chaos. Often, polychronic people will accept any request for additional work, and sometimes they are overly optimistic as to how much can be accomplished.
In the work I have conducted in the area of managing cultural diversity, my colleagues and I have noticed another interesting aspect of style regarding U.S. corporations. Efficient polychronic people (including many Mexicans) can quickly become extremely valuable to the company, because what they do would take more than one person. They become essential, and usually have a secure job.
However, these people are usually so efficient that they become unpromotable. How can you promote a person if replacing him or her would require hiring more people?
Interestingly, what we have found is that those who are monochronic are more easily promoted because another person can more easily fill their job. This creates a “ceiling effect” for many efficient polychronic people, who, while being appreciated in their companies, see their efficiency as a block to a quicker promotion.