The psychological impact of meeting lateness on organisations

If you work in a large organisation chances are you spend an average of 6 hours per week in meetings. This increases if you are a manager, where not only are you attending meetings but you’ll also be prepping and chairing them too.

In terms of cost, meetings can run in to thousands dependent on the number of people and their seniority. This is further compounded by lateness which can hold up the order of business as well as have a knock-on effect on subsequent meetings and organisational activity.Consistently late-starting meetings can impact performance and relationships.

Well-run meetings can create the right environment for employees to support the organisation. And the relationship that people have with the manager leading a meeting can determine how much those employees positively engage.

When many organisations are looking to improve efficiency and save money, meetings can be a useful place to start.

A study published in the December edition of the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology explored the implications of lateness to workplace meetings.

The research


The researchers used an experimental approach to determine the mental, emotional and behavioural reactions to meeting lateness. They were interested in why people react negatively to those who are late to meetings and how this might subsequently affect working relationships.

Participants were recruited via the Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) service. 299 people participated. A series of written scenarios were used, with participants randomly given one of eight scenarios to respond to.

Key concepts used

Attribution theory: People try to determine why others do what they do, interpreting causes to an event or behaviour. Behaviour is seen as either transgressing or not transgressing norms. See the work of Bernard Weiner for more on this. The researchers expanded on this theory to look at degrees of transgression.

Causal attribution: The attempt people make to understand the causal links between an event and behaviour. See the work of Harold Kelley for more on this.

Conservation of resources theory: People experience psychological stress when they experience a loss of resources they value, e.g. time. See the work of Stevan Hobfoll for more on this.

Social desirability bias: The notion that people respond to things in a way that makes them look good based on societal norms. Douglas Crowne and David Marlowe created the Marlowe-Crowne Desirability Scale which assesses the extent to which people are concerned with social approval.

Theory of planned behaviour: A focus on behavioural intent which is influenced by a person’s attitude about the likelihood that the intended behaviour will have the desired outcome. See the work of Icek Azjen for more on this.

The findings


  1. The reason for lateness and the level of responsibility a late-comer had for being late determined people’s reactions to the late-comer.
  2. The more the late-comer was responsible for being late, the more likely it was to elicit anger with a view to punishing the individual; the less they were responsible (i.e. their lateness was out of their control) the more likely it was to elicit sympathy.
  3. Whilst the extent to which someone was late directly affected the level of anger that people felt, this pattern was not seen in relation to the level of sympathy shown.
  4. The importance of the meeting did not have an effect on the relationship between anger or sympathy and meeting lateness.
  5. Anger and the intention to punish was negatively related to the attitude toward the late-comer whereas sympathy was positively related to the attitude toward the late-comer.

Implications and solutions


Whilst meetings are a key part of organisational life, not all meetings are essential.

Before setting a meeting up: For meeting organisers a good question to ask is, ‘Is this meeting really needed?’ For meeting attendees good questions to ask are, ‘What value will I add to this meeting? And so, do I need to attend?’

Buffer time: Lots of my coaching clients complain about not having enough time in the day. When we look at diaries a common pattern is to have meetings booked in back-to-back. Buffer time of 5-15 minutes between meetings can make a difference and help with lateness. Where that’s not possible, apologising to the meeting organiser in advance that you’re going to be late because you’re in a meeting in another building before their meeting can help them manage the meeting.

Role modelling: The culture of an organisation can determine how acceptable lateness is or isn’t. For example, one organisation I worked with deemed meeting lateness as unacceptable and yet nearly every senior manager would turn up to meetings late. Not only does this create a divide – ‘one rule for us and another for them’ – it undermines the credibility and trust between employees and managers. So, if you’re a manager that is going to lay down the law that lateness is unacceptable then you’d better make sure that you’re leading by example.

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