Reasons Why Some People Are Always Late To Work

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The Real Reason Why Some People Are Always Late To Work

Punctuality is one of the crucial aspects of maximizing operational productivity in any industry. Being five minutes late or leaving five minutes early can develop into a chronic issue that costs thousands of dollars a year even in the case of entry-level employees. But, read that line again: If you assume showing up late and leaving early are intimately connected, you may be wrong.

Leaving early can point to a number of 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 humans’ minds are wired. Although research in the topic has made decades of progress, a clear idea of what’s really going on behind the scenes is only just taking shape.

It’s called The Planning Fallacy – and no one is immune to it.

Noble Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman experienced the fallacy and witnessed it firsthand as an up-and-coming academic in Israel. While working on a new curriculum for high schools, a group collaboration with a number of respected peers, he saw that even highly educated experts routinely failed to accurately estimate how long tasks would take.

The members of the committee knew that about 40% of groups tasked with similar projects in the past had failed to complete them at all. However, even with this knowledge in hand, they did not seem to learn from past examples or make substantive changes to their approach. When all was said and done, their work took eight years – and, due to the delay, was never even used.

When Optimism Bias Works Against You

Kahneman and colleague Amos Tversky proposed a formal definition for the planning fallacy in 1979. To make a long story short, it consists of these 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 do or are. This is an optimism bias. On the other hand, a third-party observer assessing how long a task will take for another person will consistently provide a “low-ball” 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, it is relatively simple for anyone who’s committed to doing so to establish a morning routine that gets them to work on time. However, with all the thousands of tasks that take place during the work day, the planning fallacy has tremendous capacity to consume hours at a stretch. That can add up to weeks or months of lost time when all an enterprise’s stakeholders are considered.

How Can Business Leaders Reduce Exposure to the Planning Fallacy?

The planning fallacy has the capacity to 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 on 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, decision-making – are all compromised to some degree whenever 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 immediately attention-shift to emails or other incoming messages on a regular basis. 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 and should understand explicitly when contact is or is not warranted. 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 the course of 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 in clarifying 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.

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 the relevance of project management is in all the areas the planning fallacy tends to sabotage: The effective allocation of time, expertise, and budget is foremost among these.

Although project management as we know it today originates 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.

Understanding human behavior is more than the basis of psychology – it is an essential component of virtually every business and organization. The USC online Master of Science in Applied Psychology prepares professionals to excel in the fields of consumer and organizational psychology.


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