OK, where were you?
I was ready to start this column 20 minutes ago, but because you showed up late, I’ve had to spend those 20 minutes twiddling my thumbs. That wasted time could have been devoted to producing the lapidary prose for which I am so justly famous. [I’m also pretty famous for thumb twiddling, too, and I did use the time to develop some brand new twiddles for the Monday morning staff meeting, so the time wasn’t completely wasted, but you get my point.]
Before you start dredging up tired excuses, let me let you off the hook. Being late is standard operating procedure in business today. In a recent Sue Shellenbarger article in The Wall Street Journal, titled “Don’t Be the Office Schedule-Wrecker,” the Work & Family columnist reports that “about 37 percent of meetings start late, by an average of nearly 15 minutes, according to two 2014 studies.”
The consequences of co-workers and managers who are late to meetings are significant. According to professor Steven Rogelberg, “meeting delays put participants in a bad mood, potentially hurting creativity and performance.”
It’s difficult to imagine that anyone invited by their manager to a meeting would ever be in a bad mood, especially at your company, where every manager is an enlightened guru and simply being in their presence is a gift. Still, the Rogelberg’s research feels right. “Nearly one in four participants says they’re frustrated when a colleague is six to 10 minutes late; 14 percent lose concentration. Others feel insulted, disrespected or just plain mad.”
Unfortunately, a meeting that starts late is likely to end late, “creating a domino effect on the calendars of people who weren’t even at the meeting.” The dominos even fall for people who are not employees, like the bartenders at the Kit Kat Klub, who have to hang around, twiddling thumbs, while waiting for you to arrive for your liquid lunch.
As result of chronic Johnny- and Jenny-come-latelies, “colleagues may seethe with frustration, work later or take work home to catch up, yet few speak up and object — especially if the late arriver is the boss.”
And that’s the rub. Seethe away all you like. It’s one thing if a co-worker is late to a meeting; it’s quite another if the latecomer is a manager.
You would think that a manager focused on the bottom-line would arrive at meetings early, but it isn’t always the case. As much as your supervisor may want you to be productive, “about 1 in 20 chronic latecomers take narcissistic pleasure in making a late entrance, or feel entitled by their presumed power to arrive late.”
I know it’s difficult for you to imagine your manager trying to make herself look important by as pathetic a technique as arriving late for meetings, but such pathology does exist. On the other hand, New York time-management consultant Julie Morganstern suggests that “most serial offenders aren’t aware of the havoc they wreak,” And they could “harbor unconscious psychological obstacles,” she adds, describing one perennial latecomer with a problem, which had “roots going back to her childhood.” (This is why you should never punish a child by taking away their My Little Pony Princess Twilight Sparkle Charm Carriage. That child could grow up to be a CEO!)
Whether your schedule-wrecker is a psycho or lame-o, the question is what you should do about it.
If you’re the one who is frequently late, take comfort in knowing that “colleagues understand that a sick child or train delay can stall even the most punctual people.” Just be careful of rolling out the sick child excuse too often if you don’t happen to be a parent. Instead, explain your tardiness by citing a sick pet. This will show you to be a caring individual, especially when you arrive at the meeting with the ailing animal in your arms. (One worker I know kept a dead parrot in his desk drawer simply for this purpose.)
If you have to suffer from the chronically delayed entrances of a senior manager, your choices are limited. Consultant Paul Donehue suggests that you take the tardy party aside and explain that “if meeting delays leave 10 people sitting on their hands for 10 minutes, which makes them 10 minutes late for the next meeting, we’ve wasted 200 minutes.”
That could work, I suppose, but I have a better solution.
If you or anyone else arrives at a meeting late, you have my permission to leave the meeting early.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at email@example.com.