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Always late? Our culture might have something to do with it

Countries tend to be on time or have a flexi-time culture, depending on their culture, writes management expert Shiv Shivakumar

Time management has a cultural angle to it
Time management has a cultural angle to it (iStockphoto)

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Time is a scarce commodity, and luckily all of us have the same amount of it. Some leaders make time work for them; some do not. Time management is a key foundation of self-discipline; either you have it or don’t, even if you keep trying to get better at it.

While we judge people on their time management, time management has a cultural angle to it. Countries tend to be on time or have a flexi-time culture. Switzerland, Holland Denmark, Finland, the US, and Japan are on-time cultures. These cultures see time as linear, and they organize time well to work for the individual and society. In the US, Japan, and Switzerland, coming on time is seen as late. Most multinationals from Northern Europe find it difficult to deal with their Indian subsidiaries on the issue of time.

Also read: Why Titan’s MD travels to small town India by train

In Japan, the Shinkansen bullet train is, on average, about 36 seconds late. Once, when the Shinkansen bullet train left 30 seconds before the scheduled departure time, the company issued an apology. Whenever the Shinkansen is delayed even by a few seconds, the driver and conductor of the Shinkansen bow and apologize to every passenger. In Switzerland, all the coffee shops are full at 4pm because everyone tends to take a break at that time. Dutch children are taught to make study and play schedules in primary school.

Flexitime cultures see time as fluid; time in these cultures is an event and is entirely person dependent, while the society does not value it. Many Africa and Asia (including India) see time as fluid. In these cultures, at every event, every speaker thanks the chief guest profusely for sparing his/her valuable time at the event, which itself wastes time, in a way.

Edmund Hall, the anthropologist and author of The Silent Language notes that time is a silent, social marker in flexi-time cultures. People of higher rank or from higher economic or social strata tend to be late, and society accepts it as normal. Coming/being late is not an issue if you are the boss. In Delhi, if you are on time for an event or dinner, you are seen as someone who does not have much to do or you are relatively unimportant. The Finnish Ambassador to India would start dinner at 7.30pm at all her embassy events irrespective of whether the guests turned up or not.

Why are so many leaders such poor time managers? I can think of a few reasons basis my observation: First, they cannot say NO, and hence their calendar and day keep shifting. Second, they are perfectionists and put enormous effort in getting the last 5% right. It takes too much time and drains their people. Should a leader be shooting for such perfection?

The third is procrastination. Some leaders cannot decide and hence send their teams and ecosystem partners on a 20-question chase.

Four, the leader may be lazy and is unconcerned about being on time. Fifth, leaders may be poorly prepared; I have seen less than 5% of leaders in India being fully prepared for a meeting. The sixth reason is that leaders love to postpone things. They see no reason to close anything.

If you are a poor time management leader, then you need outstanding social skills so that people are willing to put up with you. If you are arrogant and perennially late, it’s a recipe for people to moan behind your back and forget you and your legacy the day you are not in the role.

India is funny when it comes to time management. Bhaskar Bhatt, the former CEO of Titan, often said, “I am surprised I sell so many watches in a country that’s perennially late.”

As Indians, we want the food delivery, the medicine delivery, the aircraft take-off and landing, all to be on time. Digital has made us impatient with time. The moment we send a message, we look for the proof that it’s been read. India has a higher proportion of bcc mails than most top 10 economies. Indians tend to mark everyone on the mail, some cc-ed and many bcc. We want to be in every email loop, whether useful or not, and that itself is time draining and distracting.

Live television has changed the game; all participants on the show land up on time since they don’t want to be left behind or they do not want the audience to see an empty chair.

Also read: Why employees do not want to go back to the office

So will things ever change in flexi-time culture countries? Yes, I predict that digital technology will make the flexi-time culture countries better time leaders because monetising time is an important revenue stream in any digital business model.

Shiv Shivakumar is the best-selling author of The Art of Management published by Penguin Random House India.

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