Seventh-Day Adventist Church

Riverside Indonesian Seventh-Day Adventist Church 5430 Ridgeview Avenue, Mira Loma CA 91752


Why People are Late

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by Alyce Cornyn-Selby

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 assignments):

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 late?

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.

1.  Come 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 late.”

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 standing outside a windy office building. 

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.