Sustainable Change: Know How to Handle Complexity Across Cultures

Clocks showing the time

Business leaders of today face a high level of complexity. Globalization, technological evolutions, market shifts, an increased pace of change. These have changed the business landscape. Business environments are more cross-cultural now than ever before. Cultural differences are changing working relationships and are impacting business success. How do 21st century leaders deal with this complexity in a sustainable way? How do they align cultural differences when dealing with complexity? Let’s pick out one important element!

Cultural differences in how we manage time can hinder us in handling complexity

The valuation of time is different in various cultures, and this is often overlooked.

I vividly remember the discussions in this leadership team, which was putting together a strategic plan in response to the changes in the marketplace. The team was a mix of American, European, and Asian executives. The debates were very difficult and they had a hard time coming to results. The core reason for this was a different perception on how to manage complexity, caused by a different valuation of time. The difference boiled down to the following: one part (let’s call it the Western part) of the team saw complexity as something you want to control. They focused on planning and control techniques. In their minds time was seizable, controllable, measurable. They used words like ‘time is money’, and ‘we are running late’. In their thinking it was all about analyzing current and desired situation, and about getting from A to B in the shortest time. They believed the situation should be tackled by focusing on efficiency and control, process and procedures. Complexity had a rather negative connotation: you want to stop it or limit it.

The other part (let’s call it the Eastern part) of the team had a totally different valuation of time. For them time was not linear, but rather cyclic. Not something you want to control to get things done, but something that allows you to explore and learn. For them the change was not predefined, from A to B. On the contrary, they did not want to make prefixed choices, but wanted to take time to explore. More like following the flow to see what it can bring. For them the focus was not on plans, actions and targets, but on relationships. For them time was a means to develop and cultivate closer relationships, like a seed planted to grow. Good relationships would allow them to deal with whatever complex change they would encounter. In fact, their whole perception of complexity was different. Complexity had a more positive connotation: it offers new chances and possibilities. (Did you know that in the Chinese language words like ‘valuable’, ‘promising’, ‘potential’, and ‘deep’ are synonyms for complexity?)

For a nice read about how our perception of time affects doing business in China I recommend this article of Justin Shuttleworth.

The difference in time valuation, which Fons Trompenaars & Charles Hampden-Turner describe in their book ‘Riding the waves of culture’ as ‘sequential’ versus ‘synchronic’ time orientation, hindered the team significantly. ‘The West’ had the feeling that ‘The East’ was not efficient, not decisive, not structured enough to come to a good strategic plan. ‘The East’ had the feeling that ‘The West’ was careless, single-minded and pushy, not patient enough to come to a good strategic plan. The executive team was experiencing difficulty in finding an effective way to deal with the complex change, and therefore, so was the organization.

The difference between sequential and synchronic orientated cultures can be experienced when Western and Eastern cultures meet each other. But be aware not to generalize too easily and make it a caricature between East and West. Within the East and the West you’ll find nuances. For instance, in Europe you can find cultural differences between northern and southern cultures, which are comparable.

Time Valuation

How successful leaders deal with cultural differences in time orientation

The more organizations are confronted with cross-cultural collaboration (internally and externally), the more they will experience this difference in time orientation. And this will affect the way people respond to complexity and change. Successful leaders are aware of this and pay special attention to aligning these different cultural orientations.

  • Are you paying attention to signals that reveal differences in time orientation?
  • Do you make others aware of these different orientations?
  • Do you stimulate people to share their way of looking at the complex change they face?
  • Are you enabling people to better understand each other’s orientation?
  • Do you understand the strengths of both orientations?
  • Are your people aware of these strengths?
  • How do you encourage people to combine these strengths?
  • How does your team combine efficiency and speed with exploring new, different and stronger relationships?
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Photo: Alan Cleaver/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Aad is an international business advisor,  change leader, senior leadership team facilitator, and executive coach. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and leadership teams internationally on three key topics: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad, our team, and HRS’ services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization feel free to contact us here.

7 Comments on “Sustainable Change: Know How to Handle Complexity Across Cultures

  1. This is helpful even in an all American company – just the reminder that people approach complexity different – some it’s a challenge to overcome, some it’s something to watch and study. I especially like the 3rd bullet point at the end;
    Do you stimulate people to share their way of looking at the complex change they face?


    • Absolutely, this is not only applicable on Eastern – Western cultures. Also within organizations cultural differences can occur, which resemble this difference in time orientation. Thanks for sharing, Anne!


  2. Aad, This is a wonderful article with vivid clear examples of the impact of cultural differences on leadership, teamwork, and most likely many other aspects of workplace interaction.

    Many thanks for sharing it in the Google + PeopleSkills Community and I will share it further on my Twitter stream etc…

    All the best to you with continued interest in your work!


  3. Great article! It clearly explains the cultural differences between employees and ways to tackle them. Differences in approach will arise since cultural differences brings along with it differences in upbringing which more or less determines our thought process. People have a certain set of values that they follow which may differ from culture to culture, which invariably will result in difference of opinions.


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