The first few months of my taking up the CEO / Principal post at Han Chiang College / University College in January 2015 was a frustrating time for me. The pace of work of my staff was at least 40% slower than what I was accustomed to in workplaces of the Klang Valley. Nobody seemed to be bothered with deadlines set and I ended up doing a lot of unnecessary “fire fighting” jobs. It took a while before my message of “being professional and taking management’s instruction seriously”was finally percolated through. This article which I wrote in August 2015 perhaps helped, albeit a wee bit, I think!
As the leader of a higher education institution during the period of 2015 to 2017, I had to rely heavily on both the academic and administrative colleagues to complete crucial tasks.
I still remember one of the management lessons I learned while I was an undergraduate, that a manager gets things done via other people. Thus having good communication skill is a ‘must have” for one to be a good manager. When confronted with the fact that most members of my senior team seemed to have trouble adhering to the timelines agreed or assigned for tasks and projects to be completed, naturally I began to investigate if it was the inefficiency in my communication skills that caused these delays. Having worked over 17 years in the Klang Valley (5 years before that in Singapore), I was accustomed to having colleagues, especially senior staff observe deadlines set for tasks and projects. I think the pace of life in the Klang Valley is much faster than Penang’s but it did not mean my team members could easily ignore deadlines set by me. Hence these many incidences of delay in the completion of tasks assigned was a mystery that I had to dig into!
One of the first difficult English words I learned from my tuition teacher, Mr. John Lee when I was in Form 1 (aged 14) was “procrastination”. Mr. Lee went on the teach us the famous saying, “procrastination is the thief of time.” I wanted to find out why many of my team members are indeed “serial” procrastinators and I was somewhat relieved that the problem did not lie in my communication skills!
One morning while I was in the shower before getting ready for work, I suddenly discovered the reason why so many of my team members were habitually breaching the relevant deadlines set by me for the completion of assigned projects and tasks. It also helps perhaps to explain the laid back attitude of Malaysians in general when it comes to adherence to deadlines.
The definition of “deadline” as provided by Google is, “the latest time or date by which something should be completed.” The word ‘dead” in the compound word “deadline” literally means something is going to be dead if the line is crossed. I thus quickly checked the definition of ‘deadline’ in Chinese which is “最后期限” (zuìhòu qíxiàn or the last date limit) or “截止日期” (jiézhǐ rìqí or expiry date/closing date). The word “dead” is somehow omitted in the translated definition. My wife who does not read Chinese but speaks fluent Cantonese tried to translate “deadline” literally, which is “死期” (si qi or date of death) and is obviously not correct. But I think “death” is a tabooed word for the Chinese when it comes to the context of a project or a job. Hence the Chinese in Malaysia (at least those who speak Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka…. that is the limit to the dialects that I have some understanding) do not collectively have a concept of death to a project or task should the deadline is crossed! If nothing is going to die if the deadline is breached, naturally no one will worry about adhering to it.
In Bahasa Malaysia, often “deadline” is translated as “tarikh akhir”, again the word “dead” (or “mati”) never comes into this. In fact “tarikh mati” is literally the “date of death” as in “死期” in Chinese. I then went on to check with a colleague who speaks and writes Tamil the definition of “deadline” in this language. She confirms that the word “dead” is also not a part of the definition in Tamil. She thinks that there is also no equivalent for the word “dead” in Hindi for “deadline” too.
While discussing the issue of “deadline” I was reminded that many Malaysians often use the word “dateline” in place of “deadline”. The word “dateline” is used mainly in journalism where it refers to, as provided by Google, “a line at the head of a dispatch or special article in a newspaper showing the date and place of writing”. Thus “dateline” is very different from “deadline”. Perhaps this is another reason for the procrastination displayed by some of my team members?
I therefore can opine that being procrastinators is inherently embedded in the Malaysian culture because collectively we do not have the concept of “death” to a project / job / task / one’s career if the timeline is not observed. Hence the long queue as the deadline approaches in filing of income tax, application for approvals etc. as prevalent in our culture. Thus, it is high time we adopt and use the word “deadline” literally as it is. Unless we have the notion that something, someone, some event or someone’s career is going to die if this timeline is not observed, Malaysians will forever be a nation of procrastinators. I hope that my definition of “deadline” has been “sticky” enough in the minds of my team members by now!
If you are leading a team as a manager, team leader or in a similar role, my advice is, before you start to assign tasks to your team members, do remind them of my definition of “deadline”.
If you are a team member, my advice is to get a move on the task assigned as soon as possible to provide yourself with sufficient timeline to meet the deadline. If you face issues that have an impact on your timeline or proving to be an impedance to your progress, you should, like I have advised my team members, bring this to the attention of your leader at the soonest for he/she may be able to solve your problems easily or extend your deadline. Sitting on a task / project and doing nothing will make you a procrastinator and more importantly it will surely hurt your career! The latter was what I told my team members and you can bet by now they know pretty well of my expectations!