29 December 2012

Is Western-Style Time Management Culturally PC?

I’m sitting in Gisborne airport. It’s a crisp early winter morning and the full moon is a huge white dinnerplate still an hour above the western ranges. An apricot sky welcomes the sun as it rises from the eastern sea.

They’re friendly here: they take the time. My cab driver not only took my bags right in to the check-in counter, but stopped to chat with mates for 5 minutes before, at his leisure, moving his car from the front door. The women at check-in have a smile and a friendly word, even as they sting me $45 for excess baggage (the occupational hazard of being a trainer!)

So why, when life seems so relaxed, people so friendly, and beauty surrounds us, do people in a place like Gisborne want courses on time management? And what of the cultural influences in a place with a high Maori population? Surely there’s a disconnect between the old ways and the new.

This topic came up as a lunchtime discussion on our course: in the room were teachers and principals from all round the Poverty Bay region, brought together by School Support Services. Two of the teachers in this informal chat had recently returned to their family areas, and were determined to keep the best of the more focused time management practices they’d learnt in larger cities. However, they were experiencing a degree of criticism from some of their whanau.

And the same issue arises with people from any slower-paced environment, be it New Zealand or other countries. In Bali they talk of ‘rubber’ time, in Vanuatu they talk of ‘island’ time, in rural New Zealand they talk of country time versus city time.

Totally fascinated (I learn something new from every cluster of people I work with) after lunch I took the question of cultural sensitivity in regard to western time management expectations to the group.

In rolling the topic round, three words rose to the surface – respectrelationships andcommunication.

As I listened, Stephen Covey’s phrase ‘Seek first to understand, then be understood’ pushed into my consciousness.

Here’s my understanding of the topic.

1. Have respect for the old ways

  • Understand that the old traditions come from a different paradigm: from a way of life underpinned by great courtesy
  • The Maori and Pacific cultures expect a willing sharing of the gift of time by the whanau with their visitors – it’s a way of showing honour and respect
  • In the old ways, the more rural ways, people are first, artificial systems (as they would see them) second. In the commercial world we sometimes get so bound up in our processes that we forget courtesy. Do the people run their diaries, or do the diaries run the people?
  • If a visitor arrives unexpectedly, stop what you’re doing and spend time with them.
  • Give people time to have their say.
  • Allow enough time for an event to follow its natural course (within reason)
  • Honour your elders, your kaumatua (no matter how long-winded!)

2. Dig the well before you need it

If you’ve invested time in building strong relationships, it’s easier to then ask people to fit in with your preferred way of doing things, including the way you wish to manage your time.

3. Communicate

  • Share your expectations and requirements
  • Ahead of time, lay out the ground rules. For example:
    • We will start at …. and finish at …..
    • We would like you to arrive at. ….
    • If you come early, please wait for us to be ready. We may be in the midst of something that can’t be delayed.
  • Think of ways to express your point in language focused on their needs and benefits. We’re all wired into Radio Station WIIFM (What’s In It For Me). Our visitors, parents, BOT, whanau are no different. If the benefits to them of your desired behaviour are pointed out, any reasonable person will accept your ‘rules’.
  • Educate people. Some possible examples:
    • Explain to them that you can’t do your best for them (i.e. parents and visitors) if caught unprepared
    • Or, you wouldn’t want them to have the trouble of coming to visit you, or the school, and not be there, or not available. You could be on a class visit somewhere, or have another visitor, or be away on a course.

Some extra tips:

Have a good sense of humour, and be flexible. Unexpected things will always happen, and being uptight won’t help.

From Stephen Soutar of Whangara School (the community of Whale Rider fame). Visitors coming up from Gisborne would sometimes reach Tolaga Bay before they realised they’d missed the turnoff. At least 20 minutes later they’d be back to the turnoff. He used to have the children waiting – now they get ready and then carry on with normal work until the visitors arrive.

Once the formal part of a gathering is over, it’s perfectly appropriate, especially if you’ve explained your plan, to leave the visitors having a good time together while you and the children get back to your work.

Integrate the best from each culture

In the light of the message in Whale Rider, where old and new cultures meet, clash, and then learn to accept the best of both worlds, it seemed very fitting that we should have this conversation in this particular city.

Here’s to a willing understanding of diversity – it makes life wonderfully interesting.





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