Respect Me, Respect My Time

5 minute read

It’s fairly common for leadership teams to ask us to come talk to their organizations about time management. My typical rejoinder to this invitation is to say, of course I’ll be glad to work with your company, but our experience is the true topic you’re looking for isn’t time management. We all have the same amount of time to work with. The topic you’re really looking for is commitment management. It’s about what we commit to doing in the time we have.

Honoring our commitments is an expression of respect toward others, and respect is something the vast majority of people deeply value. Perceptions around respect can make or break any important relationship. Moreover, the demonstration of this all-important quality of respect requires avoiding commitments we know we can’t keep, and when necessary, renegotiating commitments we’ve made—including the timing of the delivery of the good, service, or appointment in question.

A prime example of a mismanagement of commitment that most of us have endured is waiting for a technician to come to our home. Whether it’s a repairman, a contractor, or a large delivery, we all know the frustration of receiving a text at 8:53 a.m. announcing their ETA in one hour, only to wait, and wait, and wait…until 1:30 p.m. when they finally show up—with utterly no explanation, apology, or even acknowledgement of the time passed. I understand that it’s a byproduct of a healthy economy and a time of plentitude for the typically feast-or-famine construction industry, but it’s incredibly frustrating nonetheless.

If we ran our own businesses like that, we wouldn’t have much in the way of businesses, would we? And yet, countless companies seem to have a culture in which meetings never start (and thus never end) on time. One recent morning I had a scheduled conference call with a coachee and their boss; they both called in 8 minutes late—just as I was sending the typical, “Hel-LOW…?” email. This company has been a client for years, and regardless of who, when, where, or how, their people are late to conferences most of the time. There seems to be a cultural malaise that simply allows everyone to be late to meetings, and it’s a vicious cycle that’s perpetuated by starting every day behind schedule.  

To be perfectly honest, this kind of late-is-on-time culture starts with the tone set by the head of the organization. In such organizations it’s the perpetually late leader who conveys to their staff that only their time is important, and that showing respect to colleagues and others is not. The leader makes everyone wait—staff, stakeholders, clients, partners, it doesn’t seem to matter who is waiting. And since everyone is waiting, they aren’t making their next meeting on time, and on and on.

While I realize that no one, myself included, practices the art of respect flawlessly, I’m repeatedly astounded by these behaviors that effectively communicate, “I am more important than you.” Because I value respect so much, it really pushes my buttons, and I know I’m far from the only one to whom this is deeply insulting.

This rude and potentially damaging treatment of others can be eliminated with two simple practices:

Not making commitments we know we can’t honor.
In some ways this is simply learning how to say no, but depending on the “customer” at hand, it might also be learning how to say “not now” and offer a counter-suggestion of a feasible time in the future. When it’s the boss, or someone else who plays a major role in determining our reputation, it’s best to convey, I want to tell you I can, but doing so would do us both a disservice given what’s on my plate. If it’s your boss, show them what’s on your plate and ask for guidance on what should move down in terms of priority to make way for the new commitment. Most bosses are reasonable in this situation, and if they’re not, it’s time to find a new boss.

Renegotiating when circumstances change.

No matter how diligent we are in managing commitments and learning to say no or at least not now, at some point we’re going to have a commitment we come to realize we can’t honor in a timely manner. The most skillful and competent thing we can do is, at our earliest awareness of a commitment being at risk, to renegotiate the commitment. We express our regret, but we’re aware that x is not going to get done by y date, and we make a counter offer from the previous commitment—would it be ok if I did x by y? For instance, if I’m going to be even 5 minutes late to an appointment, I generally “renegotiate” by emailing or texting to say as much. From the earlier example about the technician, it’s not that they’re late per se, it’s that there’s no renegotiation of the commitment made.

People typically won’t renegotiate because they’re embarrassed, they are woefully incapable of accurately assessing the amount of time required to meet the commitment (my friend calls these people “chron-optimists”), or they simply aren’t respectful of others. Looking back on myself as a young professional, I can also add that we’re reluctant to renegotiate and we wait until last minute because we fear others’ disappointment and judgement. But ironically, the longer we delay the inevitable renegotiation, if not flat-out violating the commitment, the more we open ourselves up to greater disappointment from and judgment by others. With time, I came to understand that the earlier a commitment is renegotiated, the more likely the relationship will not only escape damage, but will actually grow as a result of demonstrated respect for others’ time.

For this week: What is the overarching message about timeliness within your organization? In your department? On your team? Regardless of the tone and culture at the top of the hierarchy, what can you control on your team and in your department? If you remain unconvinced that timeliness is an issue in the business world, check out Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable…About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business by Pat Lencioni. This short but persuasive book is a great wakeup call that is sure to change your mind.