The significance of being on time

By Mike Eldon

I had agreed to run a Saturday morning session on organisational development and teamwork for a group of young entrepreneurs. It was due to kick off at eight, and I was there well before to make sure the room was laid out as I wished and that the flip charts and markers were in place. The organisers too came in good time, but we waited until almost nine o’clock before the first entrepreneurs started drifting in. As we were waiting the organisers told me the same had happened on the previous two days, and so I was psychologically prepared for the delayed start. Well, sort of.

Now I had to decide how to handle my irritation over the indisputable fact that while I had made the effort to be on time, hardly anyone else had. Indeed, I’d fully assumed the participants would not be in by eight. (Did that expectation make my irritation greater or not? I really don’t know.)

Should I ignore the lateness, I asked myself, just grin and bear it, comforting myself with the thought that this is how things happen in Kenya? Should I worry that if I do express my unhappiness it would be too easy for those being blasted to shrug off my comments by telling themselves I’m just an over-fussy mzungu, perhaps even – as I was once described – a “racist colonialist”? Then, if I launched my session by complaining about their lateness would it create too unhelpful an atmosphere for the relaxed, reflective interactions that needed to follow, making it unduly hard for us to “heal” in the time available?

On the other hand to say nothing would result in me having to live with my resentment, and hence hold me back from being at my best with these bright young men and women. I would also not be taking advantage of this opportunity to help them address their punctuality problem.

By 9.10 a critical mass has arrived (many still have not), and so we decide to get going. After all, one doesn’t want to waste the time of those who are present. I am introduced, and now I must decide what to do. Looking around the room and winding my emotional intelligence up to maximum I tell them I need help – help to recover from having been waiting around for over an hour until enough of them are present.

“Why were you late?” I eventually ask one, trying hard not to be too intimidating in my tone. Abashed silence. I wait. “Can you repeat your question?” the young man finally mumbles, in desperate search of a way to postpone the inevitable awkwardness to come. I repeat my question, half-smiling, half-frowning. More silence, till finally this whispered dejected gem: “Poor time management.”

I try hard to suppress a smile. “Hm, and why do you think your time management is poor?” I ask earnestly. More silence, till I let the poor fellow off the hook, assessing he has suffered enough. Others follow with their own lame excuses for lateness (up late the night before; the bus to collect him didn’t come on time; had to deal with a client, an employee…) but at least no one puts forward the more understandable thought that as everyone else would be late there was no point being on time themselves.

I ask if any of them had taken the trouble to call the organisers to alert them that they would not be on time. No, of course none had, so I launch into a lecturette on the importance of expectations management, through which at least the others involved can know you’ve been delayed and when you will now show up.

With the confessionals come the apologies, and with my appreciation of their remorsefulness and an accompanying forgiveness there’s a softening of the mood, a coming together. This in turn allows for easier consideration of the deeper consequences of their lateness – beyond what it says about their lack of respect for the organisers and me and our loss of respect for them, beyond the missing out on the time during which they could have benefitted from the extra ground we would have covered.

What did their lateness do for my impression of them, for their reputation? What did it say about their standards, their respect for themselves? How had their reputation suffered? What does being perpetually late for meetings say about other aspects of how they conduct themselves? Apart from being seen as selfish and insensitive, why wouldn’t I conclude that they are likely to be careless and unreliable generally, easily satisfied with less than the highest standards?

All this we discuss, and of course no one can disagree with the dismal conclusions. Here they are, young entrepreneurs out to create a name for themselves, and they are coming across poorly. Is this how they behave with their customers, their suppliers, their staff? Are they falling short as role models? Unpalatable food for thought.

So now we come to the most important part of this exchange: what are they going to do about it? I hear earnest expressions of what “needs” to happen, what “should” and “must” happen, I hear about aspirational new life resolutions on being on time as the new normal. But all these I reject, telling them that the only acceptable way of expressing themselves purposefully is to tell themselves and each other what will happen. Consistently. Despite having gone to bed late the night before, despite not feeling a hundred per cent, despite the traffic…

They get the point; they say what they need to say; and we move on to the topic of the day, putting our difficulties behind us… while a few even later stragglers continue to arrive.

Finally dear readers, how do you feel as you read my story? Sympathetic towards this frustrated mzungu? Uneasy over his grumpiness? Hopeful the young entrepreneurs will do better with their time-keeping in future? Skeptical? Just asking.

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