BLACK PEOPLE TIME?
By Francis Wade
Friday, November 20, 2009.
There’s no denying that we have a problem in the Caribbean when it comes to managing time. Meetings start late, appointments are just forgotten, and people get angry when held to account for not meeting deadlines.
Professional managers who learned their craft from outside the region are stymied by what they see, and they find themselves unable to do much about a culture that’s “quaint” when they’re here on vacation, but absolute hell when it’s time to get business done.
Those of us who are caught in this state of affairs take the matter lightly. When it comes to time, we’re used to mediocre standards and an utter lack of accountability. We make excuses for it: “Life here is too hectic, hot, and harried to worry about that.” We use history: “It goes back to slavery days, when the slaves pretended to do work, but in fact were doing only enough to escape punishment.”
Some even turn to racial/ethnic theories: “Europeans are just better at keeping time because they had a winter season, whereas Africa and India were primarily tropical countries . . .”
While any of these theories might be valid, the result is the same. In corporations, hundreds of hours are lost each week, millions of dollars are wasted each year, and promising careers sink into mediocrity over opportunities that are irretrievably squandered. The costs are enormous, yet there seems to be no simple answer.
It’s not as if we can import some foreign solution to the problem.
In the last issue of my online magazine FirstCuts, I mentioned that I had written a proposal at ChangeThis.com for a “new, revolutionary approach to time management.” What prompted my writing is the fact that time management theories applicable to the cultures of New York, London, and Toronto are of limited use in Basseterre, Belmopan, and Nassau. Any solutions will have to be devised here in the Caribbean, for our people, and by our people.
What we can borrow from the developed world is an understanding of the limits of typical time management thinking as well as some of the methods that are used to pass on effective time management techniques.
Also, managers need to know how to empower employees to have high standards of their own, as this is the key to employees improving their own productivity throughout the course of a career.
Time Management “Methods”
In the past three months, a relative of mine (known to some readers) was buffeted by one drama after another. First, there was the category 5 hurricane. Then came dengue, also known as “bone-break fever.” At the end of the illness, her father died.
These tragedies could have been individually overwhelming had they happened in the northeast USA, where she used to live. Here in the Caribbean, such things happen one after the other. We have the experience of being subject to forces that are just plain bigger than we are.
Most of us live in small islands. It’s a sobering feeling to see a hurricane, many times bigger than our entire country, inch its way across the TV screen, hell-bent on destroying everything in its path. Recently, Hurricane Dean sideswiped Jamaica, and as we watched report after report predict the destruction that was to come, there was nothing to do but surrender.
In this case, “life in the tropics” involved mentally calculating the cost of destruction in our minds. First, lives would be lost. Then there would be lost profits as the country halted all economic activity. Finally, there would be personal costs—replacing a roof, fixing a window, or repairing a car.
The pending catastrophe was bound to cost something, and the only question was, “How much?”
It was a force over which we had no control, similar to the force causing the death of a loved one or the onset of an unpreventable, incurable fever. Here in the region, we’re used to surrendering to these forces, knowing that we can expect to have even more hurricanes next year, and the next, and the next.
Time is often seen the same way—a force over which we have no control.
And it’s actually true—there’s no way to truly manage time.
According to Webster’s, “to manage” means “to work upon or try to alter for a purpose.” Any fool knows that you can’t do that with time. It has a mind of its own, and it cannot be altered by anything we humans do (Einstein notwithstanding). It’s independent of our actions, and it just keeps ticking along.
I recall a quote from a Native American who asked the question, “How can you own the land?” To his people, it seemed bizarre to think that one could own the land, the sky, the clouds, or the sea.
I imagine early West Indians, forced to work at the point of a gun, wondering something similar: “How can you manage time?”
We can no more affect the passage of time than we can change the movement of the planet Jupiter through the skies. We Caribbean people look at those who try to manage “time” and sometimes laugh—“Dem people mad!”
We actually might be correct, because the fact is that when people in the most productive countries say “time management,” they don’t mean it literally—they mean something closer to “personal habit management.” If we in the Caribbean were to understand this distinction, it might help us come out of this resignation we have over “time management.”
Perhaps the key is to focus on managing and changing our personal habits and practices, rather than trying to “manage time” itself.
I believe we can convince Caribbean professionals that they could get more of what they want in life if only they would develop better habits. In other words, they could not only be more productive at work, but also accomplish more of their goals related to family, leisure time, and social activities.
Managers who cross cultures and enter companies or countries that seem to have no regard for time are more skilful when they coach employees in these terms. Instead of saying “You need to manage your time better,” they should say “You have a habit of arriving late.” This change in approach puts the problem, its cause, and its cure squarely in the lap of the “coachee.”
Also, this approach takes an abstract problem and makes it quite personal. “Failing to manage time effectively” just doesn’t resonate in the mind like “wasting people’s time” does.
There’s some evidence of this with non-natives who come to the Caribbean and learn that turning up “right on time” for a social engagement is seen as inconsiderate. They soon realize that being “on time” is a sign of uptightness that works against the laid-back feeling that is the very purpose of the occasion. It kills the mood.
In Munich, being “on time” signals politeness—while in Montego Bay, the same behaviour implies rudeness. Underlying both expectations, however, is a common theme: the impact of your actions on others.
In the workplace, when employees are aware of the impact their personal habits have on others, I’ve observed that they’re more likely to change behaviour—or at least make an effort.
A coach who would normally say “You have a habit of arriving late” would change the advice to say “You have a habit of arriving late and keeping us waiting, which makes us impatient with you.”
Is it possible that the productivity of entire companies could turn on an understanding of these fine cultural distinctions? If so, it would make sense to create a working environment in which new professionals can learn this new way of thinking.
For this reason, there might be something to learn from managers who belong to time-conscious cultures and how they learn personal work habits.
Good Habits Rub Off
Given the misleading way that the phrase “time management” is used, how do young professionals in cultures that are skilful in managing time learn to be effective?
Or, how do émigrés from our region learn to be productive once they land in North America or Europe? Anecdotal evidence shows many examples of West Indians, famous to their friends for their shiftless ways, undergoing dramatic transitions once they arrive in other countries. Gone are their old habits of always being late, never keeping a schedule, and forgetting meetings entirely; these are replaced by an amazing productivity and a newfound ability to hold down multiple jobs at the same time.
Is it greed? Is it better pay? Is it the cold weather? What happens to turn those West Indians into model employees abroad? How do they become part of an ethnic group in the U.S., for example, that out-earns both black and white Americans in median family income?
When I was a young college student in my first month in the U.S., I was stunned when, after arriving ten minutes late for a meeting, I was told that it was cancelled. I remember thinking that it was unfair; after all, “I wasn’t that late . . .” Of course, my feelings just didn’t matter, and the meeting remained cancelled.
I had to learn a better way.
My first roommate happened to be a graduate student who had worked for a few years at General Electric. I watched him carefully.
When I started working full time, I did the same thing: I watched the managers and other professionals closely. Over time, their work habits became mine.
My key to changing my old habits was simply copying the people who were the most effective.
I believe that managers who are effective in “managing their time” learn their habits in a similar fashion, often without thinking. It’s only when these managers cross into a new culture that they realize they possess an uncommon skill that they learned via mostly informal methods. However, as far as they know, they “just learned it”—and they really had no choice but to learn.
When managers from elsewhere come to the Caribbean, they learn that the young professionals they encounter suffer from a simple lack of good role models. Younger people enter the workplace and work alongside older professionals who are mediocre at managing their time, and the new workers quickly pick up the older workers’ habits and standards. Some of the bad habits they learn include the following:
• Being late, but coming prepared with a really good story as backup
• Bending the system to work fewer hours than the job requires
• Forgetting about key appointments, trusting that others will also
• Using the latest dramatic event (e.g., traffic, the weather) to
justify not delivering results
• Relying on their boss’s lack of skill in giving feedback to
continue poor habits
• Comforting themselves with the knowledge that they’re a bit
better, on average, than those around them (“If they can keep a man like Smitty around, then I know I’m safe”)
Ultimately, the lack of role models allows the young professional to sink into mediocrity without knowing it. On a larger scale, a company of mediocre performers becomes a company that produces middle-of-the-pack results.
Unfortunately, most regional companies don’t do enough to encourage people who demonstrate high productivity. In the worst company cultures, such people are discouraged from doing well and teased when they “try too hard,” accused of sucking up to management.
Such cultures of low performance must be confronted directly. One way to do this is to encourage young professionals to work hard to create high standards for themselves while they copy best practices from those who perform at a very high level.
Insisting on High Standards
Rallying young professionals to high standards in time management and productivity is easier than it sounds.
While many companies in countries outside the region can rally the troops with cries of greater profits for shareholders, my experience
is that this kind of rah-rah talk falls on deaf ears in the Caribbean. It sounds hollow.
After all, it was the cry for greater profits that led directly to slavery. It remains very easy for senior managers to unwittingly bring up unwanted feelings and behaviours from the past by insisting on the profit motive as a reason for greater productivity.
The first manager to talk about “managing time” was probably Massa, the typical slave driver of the 15th–19th centuries. He wanted greater efficiency, and he tried to get his dark-skinned employees to work as hard and as long as possible.
I imagine that when that kind of talk started, our enslaved and indentured forefathers made sure that this piece of English madness was “not going to catch” them. They did what we sometimes do today: they paid “lip service” to the idea while making sure that nothing really changed.
Trying to get people to come to meetings on time to benefit the company’s income statement didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work today.
Managers in the region are on much firmer ground if they try to achieve higher productivity by helping their employees set high standards for themselves. They’re more successful when they can demonstrate that meeting these standards is a powerful reward in and of itself.
The best teachers do this skilfully. One of my high school teachers once rejected a student’s dishevelled paper, asking him, “Do you see me dressing like that to come to class?”
That teacher always pushed us to demand the best from ourselves, and he insisted that we expect the same from him.
Managers who create an environment where all employees ask the best of themselves, first and foremost, empower those employees with a new way of thinking and a way to guide themselves to higher productivity.
Managers need to start by demanding high standards of themselves. When they do so, they learn a critical fact about time management habits: those habits tend to be idiosyncratic and must be customized by individuals for themselves.
For example, one of the easier standards employees can set for themselves is being on time. With sufficient awareness, they can see how this habit will benefit themselves and others. Once the habit’s importance is established and its benefits clarified, employees can teach themselves specific techniques to make on-time behaviour as easy as brushing their teeth.
The trick is that each employee must create and manage habits that work for them—and, perhaps, for them alone. Some will set their watches to be ten minutes fast. Others will programme their cell phones to remind them of critical activities. Those who have administrative support will use their assistants to manage their time with well-placed phone calls and interruptions.
Employees will (and must) discover what works for them personally. The manager’s job is to help them set increasingly higher standards for themselves while giving objective advice on how to meet those standards.
This is very different than the approach that managers often take: treating employees as if they have moral defects. To some managers, employees are thieves—stealing time. To others, employees are lazy. And to some, there’s even a belief that employees want to harm the company.
These conclusions are rarely true—I observe Caribbean employees wanting to do their “best,” but not understanding what that means or how to accomplish it.
What they need are managers who know how to coach in the area of time management, who don’t tell employees to simply “Follow me,” but encourage them to find their own way to greater productivity using the better examples around them.
When employees can plainly see that their managers are also on a course to greater productivity—and that those managers, too, were once novices—they can trust that their path is one that all professionals must take. Employees can appreciate how difficult it is to craft good habits and how the game of increasing their effectiveness never ends.
Although the Caribbean has a chequered past around the issue of productivity, good managers can learn to navigate their way around the historical obstacles by thinking hard about what time management really involves. Armed with a new understanding, they can provide their employees with the right kind of role models and the right kind of support, helping those employees win the battle against their own bad habits.
Francis Wade is a management consultant based in Kingston, Jamaica. He blogs at The 2Time Management System