37. Board Diversity and Cultural Diversity: Part II: Perceptions of Time and Organization

In part I of this series about the implications of cultural diversity for board leadership we introduced the concepts of “high context” and “low context” cultural frameworks. This second installment considers how these divergent but equally appropriate cultural perspectives view and value time. Again I am indebted to James Plueddemann, Leading Across Cultures (2009) and to Mark Naylor for their insights.

The terms “polychronic” and “monochronic” identify two very different cultural understandings. High context cultures tend to be “polychronic” and low context cultures usually display “monochronic” characteristics. In a “polychronic” culture essentially interruptions are non-existent, because time is a limitless resource and people and relationships are more important than efficiency.  To refuse to meet a person when you are present because of a prior schedule would be considered most rude. People in a polychronic context will understand when a leader stops what he is doing to attend to a person’s situation, expecting that others present are competent to carry forward the discussion and arrive at a good decision. Stuff happens in the normal rhythm of life and needs to be attended to, despite some prearranged schedule.

Conversely, a “monochronic” culture tends to view time as a commodity that should not be wasted. Interruptions then become irritating because the scheduled time is being spent on something not immediately germane to the meeting. The priority is placed on efficiency. Distress emerges when the decisions expected to occur in the context of the meeting cannot be made because of other circumstances, interruptions or relationships.

An example of how this works on the ground in a low context, monochronic culture would be a board meeting in which the chair kept to the agenda and did not allow for diversions because it was important to make decisions in that meeting. The focus is on task, working promptly and consistently. Conversely, in a high context, polychronic culture the chair of a board meeting would attend to interruptions and concerns both internal and external to the meeting, rather than completing the agenda. As emergencies intervene, the leader would put people ahead of task, assuming that the business will get done at some time, but there is plenty of time. For example, if his cellphone rang, he would not hesitate to answer it because he knew that the meeting would continue as he responded to that interruption.

On the one hand, a chair who is enculturated in a high context, polychronic way of living will give more attention to interruptions than in completing the agenda.  On the other hand, a chair who is enculturated in a low context, monochronic culture will struggle when the meeting does not follow the agenda and loses focus because other things pre-empt the meeting’s stated outcomes.  Again I would emphasize that these cultural perspectives are different, but one is not necessarily better than another.

As a general principle where the Bible leaves flexibility for various cultural norms to operate, then acknowledge that. However, it is probably wise to try and chair a board in accordance with the values of the local host culture. So a chair needs to assess what that host culture’s primary orientation is.

In most churches whose attendees primarily are second or third generation Canadians, the cultural ethos will tend to be low context, monochronic. However, as the membership of a church board may change and incorporate individuals whose cultural ethos is high context and polychronic in character, then the chair should seek to find ways to respect and value aspects of that cultural perspective.  For example, the chair might give space in the meeting for relationship building, i.e. times to share personal blessings and challenges, stop for prayer about particular issues, lead the meeting with attention to the agenda, but in a relaxed mode, not becoming agitated if the agenda is not completed at that meeting. Placing the most important items that need decision at the head of the agenda will ensure that necessary decisions are made, but it will give time for other, unplanned discussions to occur in the meeting.

In a high context, polychronic culture the chair as leader understands the discussions within and without the board meeting are part of the decision-making process. He will know when decisions need to be made and moderate the discussions and manage the interruptions so that progress is made, but not in rude or disrespectful ways. In a low context, monochronic culture the chair as leader enables the board to progress by careful attention to the agenda, the process, and existing policies.

If as chair you perceive that your board contains members from both kinds of enculturated perspectives, how can you facilitate the board’s work without frustrating one or the other group of participants?  The following might be some strategies to consider:

1. the chair needs to have a very good sense of the timeframe in which particular decisions need to be made. This will allow him to guide the board’s discussions in a relaxed, but intentional mode.

2. while the board meeting will normally be the context where a decision finally is recorded, the chair can propose to the board various contexts in which discussion leading to decision might occur. For example, at a social evening where the board members and spouses are meeting for the purpose of building relationships, the chair might engage the entire generally in a discussion about an issue that the church is facing. The intent is not to reach a decision or to discuss highly confidential matters, but rather to let the discussion flow in a different rhythm and context.

3.  develop a practice of introducing matters one or two meetings prior to the time when decision is needed. Discussion can proceed within and without the board by the members, with plenty of time for diverse opinions and insights to be gathered. The meetings become a point of touching base about the issue, consolidating thinking, and charting new insights.

4. engage the board members in some discussion about whether cellphones should be answered during meetings. If the board grants permission to one another for this to occur, then board members need to agree as well that the board’s discussions will go forward.

5. engage the board members in some discussion about how they should respond to family priorities that from time-to-time conflict with board schedules. There will be different perspectives on this, but the board members should develop some common understanding, giving permission for board members to respond as they perceive their responsibilities, without other board members becoming judgmental.

In a sense the best response of a chair is to give considerable attention to developing agendas that allow the strengths of both perspectives to have play.

[I am appreciative of the insights shared by Mark Naylor, Coordinator of International Leadership Development, at Northwest Baptist Seminary. However, the final shape of the article is my own responsibility. Larry Perkins.]

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