AND WHAT YOU
CAN DO ABOUT IT!
You’re on time. You see no reason why everyone shouldn’t be
on time. What is it about time that some people just don’t “get”?
Whether the perennially late person is in your personal life or your professional
life, it can create stress for you to the point that it may disrupt work
and ruin relationships. Just when you thought you were helpless in
this all-to-common situation, there comes new research and understanding
about what you can do about it. First, have an understanding about
what’s really going on...
Seven reasons why people are late (to appointments or with scheduled
They’re late and they don’t know their behavior is a problem for
others. Some administrative coordinators are so good at what they
do that they can disguise faults in their executives for years. They
become so efficient at pulling a boss’s fat out of the last minute fire
that the exec doesn’t know the extent of the problems he/she has been causing.
When staff performs miracles to hide an executive’s late habits, they’re
doing a disservice to everyone.
“I didn’t know my behavior was such a problem for the staff,” one
partner in an architectural firm said. “My procrastination put undue
stress on people that I was totally unaware of. Some good people
were burning out and because they were so ‘nice’ they wouldn’t confront
me with it. Once I knew, I changed immediately.”
They’re late because they’re living up to a reputation for being
late. Take this quiz. Who sang: “I’m late, I’m late...for
a very important date”? We all recognize the rabbit from Alice in
Wonderland. “I’m late, I’m late” was the bunny’s mantra; he said
it over and over to himself. His reputation was his identity.
He was the late character.
Many people have become like this rabbit. They think of themselves
as people who are always late so, guess what? They’re late.
It becomes a part of how they think the world sees them and therefore,
how they must be.
If you’ve ever said to someone, “You’re going to be late for your
own funeral,” you’ve just help solidify that person’s internal talk to
themselves about being late. Now they have to be late.
People who persist in turning the Christmas holidays into the emotional
equivalent of a 3-alarm fire, frequently do so because they have come to
believe that it’s just not Christmas unless they’re stressed and behind
schedule. Perhaps they’ve never seen anyone enjoy Christmas in a
relaxed state. Christmas becomes synonymous with “I’m late, I’m late”
and that’s how they “do” Christmas. Being busy and having too many
things to do means “I’m important.”
They’re late as an expression of power. I worked with a CEO
who kept me waiting for at least 15 minutes for every luncheon appointment.
I learned that he kept others waiting constantly too. When the board
of directors of his parent company came for a tour, however, I noticed
that he was on time. I began to see his lateness as an expression
of power, as a way of saying, “You’re less powerful, so you have to wait
for me; I can keep you waiting.”
They’re late because they’re too optimistic. I know you’ve
been told to look on the sunny side of the street but optimism can get
in the way when you say to yourself, “I can make it across town in 15 minutes.”
Yeah, sure, if it’s 3 a.m. on a holiday and you catch all the green lights,
maybe! The optimist thinks that the car will start, the parking place
will be there, the computer won’t go down, the weather will hold, planes
will fly on time. They cut the time so close that if the slightest
thing goes wrong--they’re late (again).
They’re late because there’s no reward for being on time. “Behavior
that is acknowledged will increase in frequency.” This is a basic
pearl of behavioral psychology. Fear, pain, boredom and anger are
primary motivating factors in human beings. Unless there is a reward
for being on time...or a punishment for not being on time...why not be
They’re late because they can’t say “no”. This is the person
who accepts an assignment or a duty and then doesn’t deliver or delivers
late. Every volunteer leader I’ve interviewed says, “I’d rather a
person tell me ‘no’ than take on something and not get it done.”
The classic example is when you take work to this person and they put it
off until you are terrified that it won’t get done. As a reaction
you decide to never ask them again! And that’s what they wanted in
the first place. Unable to say “no” they use lateness in the hopes
that you won’t be back again with another request.
They’re late because they’re “drama queens.” Don’t let the
title fool you. At least half of all “drama queens” are male.
A true drama queen may even be addicted to their own adrenaline.
One of my most memorable drama queens was a student who put more
energy into being late than he ever put into his studies. He requested
private meetings with his instructors to explain his behavior. In
his meeting with me, I noticed two things: his apology sounded almost
too persuasive (as if he had delivered the same speech many times before)
and, as I pointed out to him, in the time he took to deliver his speech,
he could have done the assignment. The lateness and the follow up
begging was evidently a pattern with him but it wasn’t behavior I accepted.
I decided that I didn’t care if all his other teachers had succumbed to
his charming groveling, I wasn’t buying. And you can make the same
decision with the late people in your life. Decide that you don’t
care if they’re late with everything else in their lives; you just don’t
want them being late with you.
You’ve recognized your boss or yourself or your teenager or your
spouse. Now what can you do about it? A problem can’t be solved
until you make it important enough to solve. Decide that this is
an issue that you want to do something about. Once you’ve decided
“Yeah, I’ve had enough,” here are six things you can do.
clean. Tell your late person
what effect their lateness is having on your job performance, your relationship.
Use only “I” statements, not “you” statements. “I’m uncomfortable
with having to cover for you.” “This makes doing excellent work more
difficult.” “We’ve got this scheduling system and any lateness puts
a strain on the system--there’s no margin for error.” Hope for the best
but plan for the worst.
2. Don’t label someone late or
make jokes about their lateness. It makes it part of how they see
themselves and they become stuck with it as a behavior pattern even when
they don’t want it.
Instead, try this amazingly easy technique to effect a behavioral
change. It is so simple that you will doubt that it works.
But it does. It works because it immediately indicates to the person
how they are perceived by others and they will believe that it is true
about themselves. Here’s what you do: the next time this person
is late, say simply and matter-of-factly, “Gee, it’s not like you to be
You will not believe the power of this simple statement until you
actually try it.
3. If you were left waiting, as
I was, to be picked up by the late person, stop. I was left for 20
awkward minutes waiting outside my office building every time I was to
meet one CEO for meetings. After a half dozen episodes, I finally
took my stupid shirt off and told him that I’d meet him at the restaurant.
I set limits on my time, “I’m available from 12 until 2 only.” Even
if I had to wait, I was comfortable, had my coffee and could work on other
projects. Don’t set yourself up for failure with a late person.
Eliminate yourself from situations that require you to wait, especially
if it involves uncomfortable surroundings...like standing outside a windy
4. If your late person is of the
optimistic variety, diplomatically direct this person to reality.
Point out that “you’ll need more time, it’s rush hour” or “they expect
heavy traffic at the airport” or “expect the best but plan for the worst.”
The optimist requires retraining and you’ll need patience with this person
but don’t just do nothing. A reassuring tone of voice and simple
statement of fact...repeated frequently...will help the late person rethink
their priorities. “Let’s treat ourselves to a little stress reduction,”
you say, “and get this out early.”
5. If they’re late because they
sincerely love the action and chaos it creates, you’ve got a special problem.
They’re action junkies or drama queens. It’s OK for them to be that
way but it’s also OK for you to not want to participate. Take yourself
out of the Game. “I know it’s exciting to nearly miss an airplane
but it’s not fun for me anymore.” “It was exhilarating the first
time we had to get that report done overnight but it’s getting boring now.”
Bored is the last thing the drama queen wants to hear. They
create chaos to avoid boredom. If you express the idea that the chaos
is now boring, they are apt to change.
6. Reward behavior you want repeated.
I had to work with a chronically late person and I did not have the sophisticated
tools listed above but I knew that you train dogs by rewarding good behavior.
It works with people too. I had an idea but I didn’t know if I had
the nerve to pull it off. I bought a gift and wrapped it in paper
and ribbon. I had it with me and when the appointed hour came I told
myself that if he arrived on time, I would reward him with the gift.
If he did not arrive on time, I would tell him, “I was going to give you
this gift if you arrived on time...but, maybe next time,” and then put
the gift away. I wasn’t sure I could do this last part so I prayed
he’d be on time. He wasn’t. “What’s in the box?” he asked.
“Well,” I said with just a touch of sadness, “it was going to be a gift
for you if you were on time.” We didn’t need to look at our watches;
he was 15 minutes late. “It’ll keep,” I said. The next appointment,
he was on time and I gave him the gift. He was always on time after
that. When was the last time you thanked or rewarded someone for
being on time?
If your late person is a family member who is never ready to go when
you are, once again: stick to defining your behavior and not attacking
theirs. Example: you’ve agreed to go to the 7:30 movie and
you need to leave at 7 in order to make it. Say to your late person,
“I’m leaving for the movie at 7.” When 7 o’clock arrives, leave.
Stop grinding your emotional gears and wishing they’d change. Just
say what you’re going to do and then do it. If you have to take two
cars because you prefer arriving on time, then there’s the solution for
you. You need to protect yourself from the stress resulting from
someone else’s lateness.
Doctor or dentist always keeps you waiting?
Schedule the first appointment of the day.
I went to Europe with eleven people. We had a half dozen countries
to visit and a dozen cities. For 3 weeks we needed to catch trains,
make connections and attend most meals together. I did not see how
eleven people could be on time for approximately 15 train departures, 4
airplanes and about 50 meals, but we were. There was only one snag
in Italy, only one time in 21 days that the group had to wait 10 minutes
for one straggler. It was remarkable. I was so thrilled with
everyone’s time performance that I wanted to call the Guinness Book of
World Records and report it! I lavished praise on the participants.
I gave each one of them an award. The pleasantness and ease of the
trip--the quality of the experience--was high because everyone was on time.
It proved to me that people can do it. They can be on time.
Being on time gets to be a habit.
Alyce Cornyn-Selby is an International speaker
and popular talk show guest and author of What’s
Your Sabotage? and the Procrastinator’s Success
Kit available at Amazon.com. Email questions/comments: