How to Deal With People Who are Late

When people are late, they're wasting time you'll have to make up later. But as Get-It-Done Guy reveals, there are things you can do to manage them--and their behavior.

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #324

You and I both know you're perfect. Of course, I'm perfect, too. But so many of the people we have to deal with on a daily basis simply aren't perfect. And who gets left to deal with the fallout of their shortcomings? You and me. This is so not fair.

Listener Michelle is, of course, perfect. But she has to deal with people who aren't. Michelle writes in:

What do I say when people are late to meetings? I'm twiddling my thumbs, waiting for a phone call that was scheduled days ago. The best I could come up with is a polite email asking them if ‘we’ missed the call.

First, Be Nice

Your first instinct is best. Be nice. According to science, your brain contains about 100 billion cells (I would hate to be the grad student who had to count them). So does everyone else's. And of that 100 billion cells, MIT researcher, Rebecca Saxe, has identified the temporo-parietal junction, a teeny tiny part of your brain that's so small, a zombie wouldn't even consider it an appetizer. This teeny tiny part of your brain is what figures out what's going on in other peoples' full-size brains.

It does a surprisingly good job, but it's just not as complicated as a full size brain, so it comes up with overly-simplistic explanations. Usually it comes up with explanations like, "That person is a jerk who doesn't care about other people and deserves to be tickled while drinking a soda until it runs out their nose." An emotionally satisfying explanation? Certainly! But accurate? Not likely.

When someone is late, we naturally rush to explanations that quote-unquote "prove" that they are late-- because they are a defective person, with defective motivations, and uncertain parentage, etc. More likely, however, is that they were kept in a prior meeting longer than they expected. Or they forgot to write the appointment in their calendar. Orwe forgot to confirm the date and time with them. Or they are suffering from full-body alopecia and were distracted by the itching from their new, full-body hairpiece.

The first time, be nice and polite. Seek to understand what happened, and reschedule. You're being gracious and, after all, this could be a one-off thing..

Second, Be Solution-Oriented

If they miss the rescheduled meeting, this could be a pattern. Now, they've wasted your time twice. Still be nice, but think of yourself as an investigative reporter. Your job, should you want to reclaim your time, is to get to the bottom of what's going on here. Are they a poor scheduler? After all, some people aren't good at keeping a calendar. Do they just lose track of time and forget you're supposed to meet? Are they deliberately blowing you off, because they're embarrassed to confess their secret crush on you?

Ask them. Say, "I notice we've crossed signals twice, now. How can we make sure we connect next time?" Sometimes it's as simple as confirming the day before or the day of the appointment.

My friend, Jake (that's his real name) is a master of this. He emailed me last week to make sure I remembered we were meeting for lunch Saturday. Very impressive and responsible. Which made it all the more devastating when he blew me off, and didn't show up--but his solution-oriented approach was impressive, nevertheless.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.