Late again? The punctually challenged

We all know someone who just never manages to be somewhere or do something on time. Often it is managers and the most senior leaders and it costs companies a lot. Is it intentional? Is it inconsiderate and rude? Is it a display of power or rebelliousness?

Many habitually blame others for their lateness—it’s the traffic, the faulty alarm or app, the kids, sudden events, personal misfortune. Some admit they operate best under pressure and like the adrenaline rush that comes with skidding to home base almost on time.

You may be tempted to blame this lateness on overloaded, “muddle-headedness”, behaviour learned from punctuality-challenged parents, or passive aggression. 

A recent piece even tried to “medicalise” a lack of punctuality by claiming it’s a mental disorder and describing such people as “CLIPs”—Chronically Late Insane People. A US survey found 15-20% of people are consistently late.

But there is no one reason for chronic tardiness.

Managing yourself starts with accountability

If you are usually late it’s time to recalibrate yourself and your behaviour. You need to choose whether you want to change and become a person who is always on time, and respects others’ time—and in turn is respected. The first step to accountability is to decide to be on time and plan for it.

Encourage realistic assessment of time to travel, time to do various tasks, and time to get to meetings. Then plan ahead for punctuality and commit to it. Allow a buffer zone time, and start to enjoy the results of being on time or slightly early. This is not about setting your watch ahead!

Limit distractions

The more distractions, the less focused you are, and the more likely you are to be late. Develop discipline, build new habits, and enjoy the results.

Managing the ‘late’ people

Grappling with someone who just doesn’t do things on time (whether they’re late for meetings, late with deliveries or always late for work) probably requires the following. 

Keep a log

You need to see if there is a pattern to a person’s behaviour first. A few of us are admirably organised, and like to set the pace at a brisk clip for everyone else. The majority are usually mostly on time, and mostly get things done reasonably well. You need to also allow a margin for mistakes and errors that slow things up. 

Establish the facts 

Ask questions, find out what leads to the lateness, which factors contribute, and how much time is allowed for various tasks. Are there unrealistic assessments?

Don’t be tempted to judge and be angry with someone for being late. They may be dealing with a sizeable problem at home, one not easily solved with the flick of a wrist or click of a mouse. Don’t leap to conclusions or dodgy science. Work out what is actually going on.

Give feedback

Once you’ve noted what’s going on, and the effect it’s having on that person’s colleagues, it’s time for a discreet, meaningful conversation. Not everyone welcomes being accused of a lack of punctuality, but be specific with what you have observed rather than resorting to general statements like, “you’re always late”. Instead say, “I noticed that you arrived 15 minutes after the start of the meeting today, and the report this week was three days overdue”.

What’s going on that could be causing this behaviour? Try to be helpful, as opposed to judgmental. Try to be flexible with options. It could be relationship or debt issues, affecting the worker’s performance, their diet, or sleep habits. It’s no good saying these shouldn’t impinge on work—they can and they do. Discuss it with this person, and ask what they will do and what you can do. The responsibility for improving matters lies with you both. Have empathy.

Redefine responsibilities (and maybe roles) 

Assuming you value the person and you’ve tried asking her/him to alter their ways, but they can’t or won’t; you could:

1. Assign them non-time-reliant responsibilities with greater leeway for delivery (and remember, everyone has skills that don’t always translate to speedier “agile” contexts);
2. Set tighter milestones, time limits and deliverables that everyone knows, and which this person needs to manage, ensuring they give plenty of warning before trouble strikes; or
3. Where possible, surround them with colleagues who work well with them, and who can be trusted to manage time and facilitate progress.

It’s all about creating circumstances that minimise angst for the majority.  

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace. See the rest of Eve’s blogs here.


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5 years ago

A good article however it is a display of selfishness, disrespect and unprofessionalism once a person has been advised of their ‘lateness’ problem. It is also extremely expensive in terms of other people’s time!

5 years ago

Great article.
Employers just remember the 15-30 mins extra staff give by staying behind after the business closes, you know , the extra time you are happy to accept, and expect,and not pay for.
Often this results in extra money in the businesses pocket with the end result being another sale due to the staff members dedication.
Be a little flexible, you have to take the bad with the good.