Expectation adjustment

A few days ago, I interviewed for a job in Kenya. The position would likely involve at least occasional supervision of local field staff, and one of the questions my interviewer (an American expat) asked was, “What would you do if your field team was turning in sub-par work, past the deadlines set?” I suspect that this was not a hypothetical scenario.

I explained that I would try to work with my team and make sure they understood my expectations for work quality. I would emphasize that adhering to deadlines is important for the work of all the team, and I would also privately address the matter with the guilty individuals. Whlie I think this is a solid answer, it’s an answer to an All-American question that assumes our values can be transplanted – and will function – in the developing world.

One of my continual difficulties here has been trying to adjust my American expectations about time and efficiency and keeping one’s word to Malawian expectations of these same concepts. It’s not that Malawians are lazy or ignorant of time passing, it’s just that they don’t give it the same priority that we do. By way of example, last week I accompanied a team of researchers (some from a US university, some Malawian) to a field site a few hours from Lilongwe. We drove in two cars; the car of Malawians made frequent stops: to drop something off with a passenger’s sister, to drop something else off with someone else several kilometers later, to pick up the health officer from his house, to buy sweet potatoes by the side of the road, etc. The expat car (where I was riding) waited at each of these stops, but the passengers commented more than once on how they wanted to get to the field site so they could get back to their work in Lilongwe.

From the American point of view, stopping was a nuisance, impeding us from completing what we’d set out to do – visit the village, collect some information, and return to Lilongwe. While I won’t presume to make a Malawian interpretation of these stops, I will merely say that they make sense from a different point of view. In a country where very few people have cars and even minibus fares can be prohibitively expensive, why NOT stop to deliver your sister some things from town or pick up some sweet potatoes? It’s on the way! It is more efficient to make a small stop for a personal errand – even on a work trip – than it is to retrace one’s steps at another time. And the only people staring at their watches are the Americans.

Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy efficiency, order, and being on time. But in Malawi, efficiency, order, and “on time” are all relative terms that do not necessarily conform to my American sensibilities. Similarly, I suspect that if my team was turning in subpar work, past the deadline, a conversation would be order – not just to adjust their expectations, but to adjust my own.

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