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'Is that regular time or 'Indian time'?

Coordinating an effective time management program in a culturally diverse organization

Is there really such a thing as ''Indian time''? This question is usually met with groans, sighs and giggles. Most of us define ''Indian time'' as a lax, casual view of punctuality. It often frustrates many people who must function in an environment that is not time-focused or time-exact. But the truth is, Indian time is as culturally relevant as our beliefs, values and traditions. There is no question about it, Indian time does exist.

In a more positive light, Indian time represents patience and discipline. It represents the fact that we respect and value one another's presence so much that we will wait until everyone arrives before we begin to discuss important issues. From a different view, Indian time allows us to slow down and relax as we engage and interact with one another. It may also be a subtle way in which we re-affirm that we are valued.

When comparing Indian time to American business time orientation, one of the strongest differences is the belief that time can be associated with a specific dollar value. This idea is clearly promoted in the popular American saying, ''Time is money.'' The idea that we could project a monetary benefit to productivity - with relation to time and output - has become our driving force in business and industry. It was then that Americans began to become highly ''time-specific.''

Modern American Indian businesses and organizations might find it necessary to re-evaluate the overall use of time. For most people, the productive use of time is one of our top concerns. In most cases, we feel we can make better use of our time, and we may not get things done in the most efficient manner. For Natives and other culturally diverse organizations, time issues are a little more challenging to address as we attempt to deal with the problems time differences cause to our overall organizational processes. In some cases, we attempt to use coercion and punishment to inhibit unwanted behavior such as employee tardiness or missed deadlines. These methods are not always the best, most appropriate ways to change or improve an organization's operational culture.

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In attempting to improve our time, we should survey the ''time'' habits and specific time orientation of our organization. When does everyone arrive to work? Do meetings begin at the scheduled time? Are appointments kept on schedule? Then we can ask: How is this affecting our operations? Are we meeting our work timelines and goals? Are we wasting too much time?

Secondly, discuss the issue openly. You might want to pose the question, ''Do we have a time problem here?'' Try to understand each person's view of time. Communicate your own view. Attempt to gain a general consensus of how your business or organization is affected, how to deal with time issues, and even why time issues are important. It might be useful to acknowledge the traditional view of time and the historical reasons why our Native cultures functioned in a ''time-lenient'' manner. This may help to determine why these time habits may be outdated or nonproductive in our modern environment.

Collectively develop rules or guidelines for punctuality. Make sure this is done through a positive process. Stress the value of their timely presences to employees and group members. Send reminders or offer reasonable incentives, rather than consequences, for their punctuality. Avoid making it personal, as employees may become defensive and resist efforts at improvement. It is important to gain ''buy-in'' from all members of your workgroup. Once employees give their support, they will work independently to adhere to a collective agreement on time issues.

Flexibility is also an option. Consider why it is necessary to start a meeting at a specific time.Consider flextime work schedules, which give employees the choice of when they can best complete work tasks.

In most cases it is easier to find compromises for organizational operations than to attempt to change culturally driven habits that have been decades, or even centuries, in the making. If our time habits aren't affecting us, it may not be necessary to change or adjust our behavior, but rather be more accepting of and patient with the differences. Unfortunately, few organizations and industries are not accountable to outside stakeholders who expect us to operate in a predictable, time-specific manner. Native organizations must balance understanding and valuing our cultural dynamics and developing more efficient business practices to remain competitive in our modern environment.

Lucinda Hughes-Juan has many years of teaching and training in the fields of business and management, with a focus on the cultural dynamics in Native businesses and organizations. She is an enrolled member of the Tohono O'odham Nation. She holds an MBA in global management, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in business and organizational management. E-mail her at