During the last weekend, I had a chance to observe a couple of workers who were installing new backsplash in my kitchen. One of them was setting the tiles as quickly as he could. It was clear that he wanted to finish his task and get out as quickly as possible. The other went about his work patiently. He took measurements for tiles to be set at the edges, cut the tiles according to measurement, and finally set those tiles. When setting the tiles he had cut, he would look over the work of the first worker and tweak the tiles on the wall in case they were not aligned properly. Occasionally, the first worker would question him about what he was up to and he explained that the alignment of the tiles was not proper and he was fixing it. I remember the first worker telling the second one that it wasn’t a big deal if the tiles were not perfectly aligned. The second worker responded that he felt uneasy if the alignment wasn’t proper. “The quality of what we produce is important to me,” he added.
What I saw in action were two individuals, one who emphasized speed and the other who emphasized quality, somehow balancing their differences in a way that helped them perform effectively as a team. I wondered if this is what happens in a team when team members differ in terms of their emphasis on speed, quality, and other performance goals. Does such diversity help a team address different and, oftentimes, competing team performance expectations that are typical for many teams? Or does it create conflict among workers and hinder team performance? Are there any ways in which this diversity can be managed so that it benefits rather than hinders team performance? Interestingly, these questions were quite similar to those that motivated a recent study reported by Susan Mohammed and Sucheta Nadkarni in the Academy of Management Journal. The authors examined how team temporal diversity can be effectively managed to maximize team performance. Certainly, there is more to diversity within a team than just temporal diversity but what Mohammed and Nadkarni found helped me get closer to the answers I was seeking.
Dimensions of temporal diversity
Mohammed and Nadkarni defined temporal diversity as variations in members’ time urgency, pacing style, and time perspective.
Time urgency is a personality trait that reflects how concerned someone is about conserving time. Time urgent individuals feel that time needs to be conserved. They feel chronically hurried and are continuously focused on how much time is remaining for an activity. On the other hand, those who are not time urgent don’t feel highly constrained by time. They feel less hurried and are not concerned with the passage of time.
Pacing style refers to how individuals pace their effort when working towards deadlines. People vary from those who begin working on their tasks right away (early action individuals) to those who start working close to the deadline (deadline action individuals). In between, you find steady action individuals who spread out their work evenly.
Time perspective reflects the importance given by an individual to past, present, and future time frames. Those with present time perspective tend to focus on immediate pleasure, take more risks, and plan only for the near future whereas those with future time perspective tend to be highly goal-oriented, consider future consequences, and plan beyond the near future.
Temporal diversity can help but you need temporal leadership
Mohammed and Nadkarni viewed temporal diversity as helping a team perform better provided it is managed appropriately. They suggested that one way in which temporal diversity could be managed is via temporal leadership. They defined temporal leadership as the extent to which team leaders scheduled deadlines, synchronized team member behaviors, and allocated temporal resources. According to the authors, strong temporal leadership helps the team reduce the problems associated with temporal diversity and put it to work to meet diverse performance expectations, thereby helping team performance. On the other hand, weak temporal leadership, the authors contended, hinders team performance by failing to curb the problems arising from temporal diversity and being unable to put it to good use.
The results from the study that Mohammed and Nadkarni conducted using 71 teams from a process outsourcing provider firm in India supported the authors’ contention that temporal diversity can help a team perform better if temporal leadership is strong. They found that time urgency and pacing style diversity were more positively related to team performance when temporal leadership was stronger. In other words, teams can benefit from having a mix of high and low time urgency members as well as a mix of those who differ on how they pace their assignments. But to get this benefit, team leaders must set milestones, prioritize tasks, remind members of important deadlines, build time for contingencies, pace the team members, and coordinate team members’ efforts to help the team meet its deadlines. If they don’t, then diversity may harm rather than benefit team performance. Mohammed and Nadkarni did not find diversity in future orientation as playing any role in influencing team performance.
Mohammed and Nadkarni found another interesting result: strong temporal leadership improved team performance, irrespective of whether temporal diversity in the team was high or low.
What does this mean for virtual teams?
Virtual teams, or teams engaged in remote work, often consist of individuals from different cultures. Individuals from different cultures tend to have different visions of time. Americans, for instance, possess a clock vision of time and see time as a scarce commodity which must be conserved. Those belonging to the Hindu or Buddhist culture, on the other hand, adopt a timeless vision of time. They view the world as engaged in simultaneous destruction and creation. In such a view, the passage of time is not important because whatever goes, comes back again. Whatever is happening today will happen again in the future. Such differences among team members are likely to introduce temporal diversity within the team and create an opportunity for enhancing team performance with the help of temporal leadership.
Leaders of teams engaged in remote work can create temporal leadership within a team by helping it develop a team compact and regularly conduct after action reviews (AARs). The development of a team compact helps a virtual team set milestones and prioritize tasks. It helps the virtual team coordinate its efforts — the team assigns clear tasks to its members and creates a schedule for the work due from the members. The team also creates a timetable for team meetings and conducting AARs. During the development of a team compact, members of a virtual team also agree to how soon they will respond to messages from each other. When a virtual team conducts AARs, it gets an opportunity to revisit the team compact and review how it is faring in terms of following its schedule and meeting its milestones and deadlines. During the AARs, the team may also change its schedule or create a contingency plan for the remainder of the project if necessary.The development of the team compact and conducting regular AARs, therefore, give the whole team the opportunity to engage in temporal leadership and manage the temporal diversity that may exist in the team. By letting the whole team engage in temporal leadership rather than imposing a set of task assignments and a delivery schedule on them (as it happens in the case of team charters), team leaders increase the likelihood of team members responding effectively to temporal leadership and working together to improve team performance.
Even though team compact and AARs are useful tools for a team engaged in remote work, they are not always embraced enthusiastically. Mohammed and Nadkarni’s results have provided me with a strong justification for recommending the team compact and AARs to virtual teams. I often get quizzical looks when I recommend these tools to the virtual teams that I supervise. Team members see the development of a team compact and conducting AARs as trivial exercises with little value. They sometimes argue that they are professionals and they don’t need to be reminded regularly that they have to complete their work. What I see missing in these individuals is the realization that they are working in a team and that there are bound to be differences in how each individual approaches the work assigned to that individual. As the study by Mohammed and Nadkarni demonstrates, team members may differ on the basis of time urgency and pacing style. While each team member may approach their individual work professionally, because they have to work with each other, they need to manage their individual differences related to time urgency and pacing style. In fact, by managing their individual differences, they may be able to harness their different traits or styles to benefit team performance. Even if there is no temporal diversity in the virtual team, creating a team compact and conducting regular AARs provide opportunities to the team to engage in temporal leadership and improve team performance.