Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The scourge of meeting late-comers

Tardiness at meetings is one of the biggest unexplored issues in work-place behaviour, according to a team of researchers in the USA. Steven Rogelberg and his colleagues attempted to estimate the base rate of meeting lateness via a survey of 195 employees across South-eastern USA, reporting on over 300 meetings. Participants admitted arriving late an average of 5 per cent of the time. Multiply by the number of attendees at a typical meeting (the average in this sample was 8) and this makes the odds of a single late-comer high and helps explain the finding that 37 per cent of meetings on average started late.

Less satisfied employees, the less conscientious, younger employees, and those with a dislike for meetings, all tended to report being late more often. Job level was not related to (self-confessed) tardiness.

Does it matter if a person arrives late? The researchers said it has a negative impact on both the late comer, who is often judged to be rude, and the rest of the team. Most participants reported experiencing negative feelings when someone shows up late, including frustration, feeling disrespected and upset. This is bad news, the researchers said, because "negative mood states can negatively impact performance." If you consider that an estimated 11 million meetings occur in the USA each day, and that $37 billion is lost annually thanks to unproductive meetings - the role of meeting lateness could be massive.

Part of the problem is that people vary in their definition of lateness. In another study, Rogelberg's team surveyed 665 international participants (average age 37) via StudyResponse.Com with an open-ended  question about their understanding of meeting lateness.

Just over a fifth of the sample defined lateness as arriving after the scheduled start time (which was the objective definition used in the survey into the base rate of lateness). Another fifth defined lateness as a certain fixed time after the scheduled start - in other words, they were allowing for a "grace" period, varying from a few minutes to more than ten minutes. Thirty-two per cent defined lateness as arrival after the meeting had actually got underway.  Some (6 per cent) defined lateness simply as "keeping others waiting", or "interrupting the flow" (5 per cent). Finally, a minority (3 per cent) saw lateness in terms of whether a person was "ready to go" once the meeting had started.

The participants were also presented with a range of set scenarios and asked if these were an incidence of lateness. Although most people considered arrival five minutes after the scheduled start as lateness, responses here also showed how much social factors come into play. For instance, far fewer people said they would consider themselves late if they arrived five minutes after the scheduled start time, but other people had yet to arrive and those already there were still chit-chatting.

The study has some obvious weaknesses, including a reliance on memory and self-report, and the emphasis on Western attitudes to time.

"In light of the frequency, consequences, and conceptual complexity of meeting lateness, along with the dearth of extant research on the topic, it is a phenomenon primed for further study," the researchers said. "This study was an attempt to energise such research as the potential appears vast."


Rogelberg, S., Scott, C., Agypt, B., Williams, J., Kello, J., McCausland, T., and Olien, J. (2013). Lateness to meetings: Examination of an unexplored temporal phenomenon European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 1-19 DOI: 10.1080/1359432X.2012.745988

--Further reading--
Towards healthier meetings (feature article from The Psychologist).

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


David Craigie said...

I found the different definitions of lateness fascinating. It would be normal to assume that we all shared the same definition, but it helps to know that it might need clarification if you are setting up expectations for how a group will function.

Martin Gardiner said...

Did the study take into consideration the perceived 'status' of the latecomers?
Might we guess that the higher in the pecking-order you are, the more likely you'll be to get away with it?
Could it be that some high-status individuals might sometimes deliberately turn up late in order to reinforce their position?
Abundant research material can be found in the 1970's UK TV series 'The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin'

Christian Jarrett said...

hi Martin - I'm sure you're right about the role played by status, but no, this wasn't something that was looked at in this study.

Christian Jarrett said...

hi Martin - my mistake, actually "job level" was one of the factors they looked at in relation to self-reported tendency to lateness, but there was no correlation.

Vincent vd Lubbe said...

Could meeting lateness serve as important signalling for the healthiness of an organization?

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