Are "schedule wreckers," as the Wall Street Journal calls them, ruining your meetings? You know the type: they're the ones who consistently arrive late, forcing everyone to either wait or waste precious time repeating what was already said.
Sure, you could act like an old-school football coach, helming an authoritarian atmosphere with zero tolerance for tardiness. But in 2015, that won't solve a lateness problem. What will solve it is learning more about why latecomers are late and examining your own meeting culture. Here are a few tips on how to handle the schedule wreckers in your office.
1. Shame the Person at Your Own Risk.
The Journal recently ran an article about these "schedule wreckers," rounding up different takes on how to deal with the chronically late.
One leader suggested delaying meetings till latecomers arrive. The idea was not to wait out of courtesy. It was to help the latecomer see (and ideally, learn from) the emotional impact of his lateness, by noticing the "frustrated faces" of everyone who waited.
Another advisor suggested the tactic of refusing to update latecomers about what they've missed. This would put the latecomers in the unenviable position of having to take extra communication steps to catch up.
While the shaming element of these tactics might prove effective in some cases, there are unintended consequences to strategies designed to make others uncomfortable. "If your intent is to make others feel uncomfortable, that will also lead to resentment," says organizational psychologist Roger Schwarz, author of "Smart Leader, Smarter Teams." "In addition, if the late person has relevant information for the group's decision, refusing to bring the person up to date will likely lead to the group making a lower quality decision--a significant negative consequence."
2. Confront the issue out in the open.
Ideally, you'll broach tardiness right when it happens, in the setting where it occurs, in front of everyone.
"You might say something like, 'My understanding was that the meeting was scheduled to start on the hour. Did you have a different understanding?'" suggests Schwarz. It may seem obvious to begin with a question about the start time. But by doing so, you show you're open to the possibility that you, your meetings, or your culture may be unwittingly contributing to the tardiness.
If the lateness has happened before, identify the pattern. Stick to facts. Use disclaimers that make it clear your observations are factual, not personal. Say something like, "Over the last two months, you've been at least 15 minutes late to six out of eight meetings. Do you see that differently?"
Since you'll ideally have this chat in front of your coworkers, it's important to stay matter-of-fact with your tone. Emphasize that the purpose of the conversation is not shaming, but solving problems immediately and transparently, in the presence of everyone affected by the tardiness--or the proposed solutions to it.
"Say, 'I'm not trying to put you on the spot or make you uncomfortable. But there are seven people here waiting for you,'" says Schwarz. "'What I want to do is find out from you what it is that's contributing to the lateness and what we need to do differently.'"
Keep in mind, too, that if the latecomer has indeed been tardy on six of eight occasions--but you and your team have said nothing about it until the sixth occasion--then you and your team are partly to blame. Solving the problem in front of everyone should include coming to terms with how you'll address tardiness, going forward.
You might learn lateness is more normative to your culture than you realize. And whether you want to change that is an open question. "We've been in organizations where they say, 'We never start on time,'" says Emily Axelrod, co-author with her husband Dick Axelrod of "Let's Stop Meeting Like This." For example, she says, she's worked with companies in southern California where it's proven fruitless to enforce a strict culture of promptness--the traffic is simply too unpredictable. Ultimately--and contrary to their initial belief--a high-tolerance for tardiness proves to be the most practical solution.
3. Change your meeting culture.
If you learn that tardiness is more normative to your culture than you realize--and you want to change it--there are some quick steps you can take. The Axelrods suggest a two-tiered start time, with a buffer. Something like, "We're going to have coffee between 8:30 and 9:00, and a hard start at 9:00," says Dick Axelrod.
You can also become stricter about the end times of meetings. TINYpulse, a Seattle-based startup whose software product, TINYhr, automates the employee-feedback process, routinely gauges what frustrates employees about meetings. The feedback often mentions dissatisfaction with meetings that run over time.
TINYpulse CEO David Niu has a few suggestions about how to reduce tardiness without resorting to anything that feels like shaming. For example, he is a believer in unusual start times. TINYpulse itself does its daily huddle at 8:48am. "It's odd but extremely memorable because it stands out," notes Niu.
He also suggests prominently displaying digital clocks in the office. "It psychologically shows people that time matters and it's being measured," he adds. In meetings, you can use a low-tech hourglass. Latecomers will then physically see how much time they've missed. The hourglass can also help facilitators stay mindful about ending the meeting on time.
For what it's worth, even football coaches are learning to be less doctrinaire about once-sacred meetings policies. For instance, the NFL's San Francisco 49ers recently revamped their meetings, hoping to boost the engagement levels of their young player-employees.
Meetings used to go as long as two hours. Now they are broken into 30-minute blocks, each followed by 10-minute breaks. These breaks, 49ers coach Jim Tomsula told the Journal, allow players to "grab your phone, do your multitasking and get your fix."
Of course, tardiness is still unacceptable. But if the NFL's lords of discipline are willing to modify meetings for better attendance and engagement, shouldn't you be, too?