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Eating into the time of others is an offence

Does this happen to you often?

You show up for a meeting, five minutes ahead of time. Fifteen minutes after the agreed time, some of the other participants start to filter in. It takes another fifteen minutes before you have a quorum. Hardly anyone is apologetic. Some invitees never show up at all, and never notify anyone.

You show up for a meeting, and are told that your host will not, after all, be meeting you that day. Something came up. No one bothered to notify you of the change in advance.

You show up for a meeting that is to be addressed by a dignitary. The guests are seated at the designated time, but there is no sign of the bigwig. After a full two hours of waiting, an entourage arrives. It is not, however, the dignitary you were expecting. He has sent his deputy to “read his speech on his behalf.”

You arrive on time for an event, only to discover that it was actually planned to start an hour later than advertised – because of the phenomenon known as “Kenya Time”. In other words, no one will show up on time anyway, so event planners have to trick everyone. If you showed up on time, the joke’s on you.

You are awaiting a report from a colleague, without which you are unable to proceed. The deadline was a week ago. There is no sign of the report, and the colleague is no longer replying to your e-mails or taking your calls.

Incidents like these are common currency in Kenya. I wrote about the time problem several years ago, but nothing has changed. “If you are like most of us, you fritter away a great deal of time in this way. Add up all the time wasted thus in the economy, and you may find yourself staring at a very large number indeed. Modern economies require millions of people to interact, to exchange goods and services, to work in teams, and to co-ordinate their activities. If these interactions occur at the time they are supposed to, all is well. If they do not, then severe wastage occurs and resources are lost.”

You will have noticed, of course, that people rarely keep their superiors waiting. The same CEO who lets an underling rot in his reception area for two hours will drop everything instantly should the chairman appear. In Kenya, ‘big’ people often use time as a weapon to reassert superiority over ‘small’ people. The message is: “My time is more important than yours; I am busy because I am important; you can wait because you are inconsequential, an ant in the dust.”

The problem is that as soon as people realise that nothing starts on time, they adjust their behaviour accordingly. Even normally punctual people become tardy. Before you know it, we are all bound by ‘Kenya Time’. That is disastrous, and retards our development. Taking longer to get things done lowers productivity, and without productivity gains there is no meaningful economic growth or rise in incomes.

Tiny Rwanda appears to have cottoned on, and the example is coming from the very top. I was told of a recent presidential function scheduled for 10 am. By 9.30, all the guests were seated. At 9.45, the presidential convoy arrived. The national anthem started playing at 9.55. At 10.00 on the dot, President Kagame began his speech.

When you think about it, time is one of the most precious things we have. A human life is just a span of time, after all. When you eat into the time given to others for no reason than your own self-importance and lack of organisation, you are committing an offence. You are reducing someone else’s productive time. Do you imagine your time on earth is any more important that anyone else’s? Why?

Punctual people have learned, over the years, to expect to wait for others. Some react badly: they fret and fume and bottle up their resentment. That is a bad strategy. Feeling resentful, as actress Carrie Fisher put it, is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die! Far better to stay calm and have a plan.

Here’s what I do. I still make every attempt to turn up on time, even though I know the wait that awaits. If I end up waiting more than 20 minutes and I have not heard from the latecomer in question, I leave. If I am the host, I allow 30 minutes before moving on to do something else. I know I lose business by doing this; but it is worth losing. If I am late, I make every attempt to notify the other party and apologise with all my heart. And I take no offence when the tardiness of others was genuinely unavoidable.

And what do I do with all that waiting time? It’s very simple, really: I carry a book wherever I go. All that ‘lost’ time suddenly becomes highly productive and highly enjoyable…

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