Reasons Why Some People Are Always Late for Work

A late-to-work businessperson holding a bag and a folder of papers runs toward their office.Having a punctual workforce is crucial to maximizing operational productivity in any industry. Always being late for work or always leaving early — even by a few minutes — can become a chronic issue that costs thousands of dollars a year, even in the case of entry-level employees. Yet if you assume showing up late and leaving early are intimately connected, you may be wrong.

While arriving to work late and leaving early both cut into an employee’s workday — and therefore, their productivity — they are separate situations that stem from different causes. It’s important for managers and business leaders to not only understand this distinction, but also to approach these circumstances from a psychological perspective.

Why Some People Are Always Late for Work

Leaving early can point to several issues, up to and including a simple lack of respect for the organization and colleagues. But arriving late is a far more fundamental issue, which may be rooted in how the human mind is wired. Although research on the topic has advanced over the decades, a clear idea of why some people are always late is only just taking shape.

That idea is called The Planning Fallacy — and no one is immune to it.

Future Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and colleague Amos Tversky introduced the concept in 1979, defining it as “the tendency to underestimate the amount of time needed to complete a future task, due in part to the reliance on overly optimistic performance scenarios.”

Psychologists call this mindset “optimism bias.” While being optimistic has its benefits, such as an improved state of well-being, getting caught in the constant cycle of optimism bias can cause issues at work that impact productivity.

When Optimism Bias Works Against You

The planning fallacy consists of three elements:

  • When estimating how long their own tasks will take, humans, tend to display optimism.
  • The assessment an individual makes is not affected by his or her knowledge of past tasks.
  • When an outside observer makes a time estimate, it tends to suffer from pessimism.

The outcome is simple: Individuals consistently assume their own tasks will get done sooner and be easier than they actually are. On the other hand, a third-party observer assessing how long a task will take for another person will consistently provide a “lowball” figure representing a pessimism bias — believing the task will take longer.

In the short term, humans can overcome the planning fallacy for routine tasks. For example, short tasks can add up during the morning routine prior to getting to work. Too many of these diversions can cause a person to leave home at a time that makes punctual arrival impossible. The solution is relatively simple. It means establishing a morning routine that gets them to work on time.

When the planning fallacy is looked at in a larger context, the consequences can be substantial. With all the thousands of tasks that take place during the workday, the planning fallacy has a tremendous capacity to consume hours at a stretch. If an employee is always late for work, it can add up to weeks or months of lost time when all of an enterprise’s stakeholders are considered.

Good and Bad Reasons to be Late for Work

Not all reasons for being late for work are bad. While managers should be mindful of poor excuses, they should be equally considerate of people who are legitimately late.

Good Reasons

Reasons that are considered to be legitimate tend to be products of issues that are out of the employee’s control. They may have overcome their optimism bias and planned ahead to get to work on time, but circumstances may conspire to make them late.

Reasons for being late that are considered justified include:

  • Weather: Inclement weather such as heavy rain or snow can disrupt driving and cause unexpected delays. Poor weather patterns can also occur without warning, making it possible for employees to get unwittingly caught up in conditions they weren’t prepared to handle.
  • Traffic: Accidents can cause traffic jams that greatly impact a person’s regular commute, but accidents aren’t the lone cause of traffic snarls. Road construction and other delays such as crossing trains can also cause traffic to back up. While this can be a good excuse, it can also become a poor excuse if used chronically.
  • Mass Transit: Subways, trains and buses don’t always run on time or on their expected schedule. When a major disruption occurs, there is not much an employee can do.
  • Family Illness: An employee may have to care for a sick family member. This may disrupt an employee’s routine, causing them to be late. In these cases, managers may want to encourage employees to proactively notify the office before heading to work.

Poor excuses for lateness tend to be reasons that are completely in a person’s control, especially when that person is always late for work. These are situations typically brought on by poor planning, which can sometimes be directly attributed to the planning fallacy.

These poor reasons can include:

  • Oversleeping: There are variations on this excuse, such as having an alarm that malfunctioned or forgetting to set the alarm. This can be particularly concerning if overused.
  • Overuse of Certain Good Excuses: Reasons like traffic and weather are fine when used appropriately. When they’re used routinely, this could signal a red flag.
  • Unusual or Far-Fetched Excuses: Any type of excuse that comes across as weird or unreasonable, such as the weather being too cold, or being too tired to get out of bed, should be treated as a poor excuse.

How Can Business Leaders Reduce Exposure to the Planning Fallacy

The planning fallacy can affect virtually any task, from the most mundane to the most complex. Individuals and teams are impacted by it. To minimize its influence on the bottom line, it’s important to identify and stick to best practices in time management.

Step 1: Discourage Multitasking

Although it has become extremely common, the science of multitasking is increasingly clear: It does not exist, at least not in the sense most people believe. Researchers have demonstrated that attempting to multitask inevitably yields cognitive costs. The building blocks of cognition — recognition, comprehension, and decision-making — are all compromised to some degree when multitasking takes place. Although the cognitive delay caused by switching from one task to another is measured in milliseconds, it can add up and impact performance within a short time.

In a world of “always on” technology, it has been taken for granted that many stakeholders will regularly attention-shift to emails or other incoming messages. Although it may be impossible to restrict the flow of incidental communications in a large enterprise, each stakeholder should be informed of the perils of multitasking. Eliminating multitasking to the extent possible will close a major planning fallacy loophole — less time spent on emails as opposed to operational tasks.

Step 2: Set Agendas and Strict Start Times

Over a quarter, the average team member spends dozens or even hundreds of hours in meetings. Surveys have demonstrated that employees consider a large part of these hours wasted. The planning fallacy is on display when people show up late to meetings, speakers drone on well over their allotted time, and stakeholders must make a significant time investment to clarify what was said after the meeting is actually over.

Without a clear agenda that everyone is aware of, a meeting is a stew made up of each person’s planning fallacy on full display. Meetings should start at a firm time known by each attendee, speakers should have adequate time to prepare and agenda items should be distributed at least several days in advance so they can be followed closely. With these measures in place, each meeting will be more productive and the total number of meetings may diminish.

This also applies to being on time to work. Setting strict start times and agendas can help encourage employees who are always late to work to come in on time with their colleagues.

Step 3: Employ Project Management Best Practices

The planning fallacy is so pervasive in business that an entire discipline, project management, has been developed mainly to curtail it. That may be a bit of an overstatement, but project management addresses all the areas the planning fallacy tends to sabotage. The effective allocation of time, expertise and budget are foremost among these.

Although project management as we know it today most clearly manifests itself in the worlds of construction and manufacturing, its basic precepts can be applied to virtually any industry. No matter what your approach, however, the lesson is this: The bigger the project, the more planning should be involved. The more planning, the more perspectives should be used.

In larger projects, the planning fallacy has the potential to reach “critical mass” and develop into a form of groupthink that can paralyze projects. Designating an individual as the project leader ensures that someone is ultimately responsible for moving things forward.

Build a Work Culture That Minimizes the Planning Fallacy

Understanding the psychological reasons why the planning fallacy may cause employees to be late to work or behind on projects can be the key to reducing its impact. In the long term, this can increase efficiency and affect an organization’s growth and stability goals.

Understanding human behavior is more than the basis of psychology — it is an essential component of virtually every business and organization. USC’s Online  Applied Psychology Masters prepares professionals to excel in the fields of consumer and organizational psychology.

Our program gives students the tools to approach business from a unique psychological perspective to bring about positive change. Learn how USC can help you plan your journey to success.

Recommended Readings

How Does Consumer Psychology Influence User Experience?

What Is Consumer Psychology?

What Is Organizational Psychology? 6 Real-World Applications


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Cleveland Clinic, Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work

The Decision Lab, Why Do We Overestimate the Probability of Success?

The Decision Lab, Why Do We Think We’re Destined to Fail?

The Decision Lab, Why Do We Underestimate How Long It Will Take To Complete a Task?

Entrepreneur, “What Is the Planning Fallacy, and How Can You Avoid It?”

Houston Chronicle, “The Importance of Having an Agenda Before a Business Meeting”

Indeed, “4 Acceptable Excuses for Being Late to Work”