Late Again–How do I Respond?

Late again

Stood Up

A number of weeks ago my wife and I arranged a meeting with the president of the local religious congregation we are serving. We were to meet at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon to plan some upcoming meetings with his presidency and other leaders of the congregation.

My wife and I arrived at the church just before the appointed time and found we were first there. We opened the doors and waited. After a few minutes we went to work sweeping and dusting. We worked for 30 or 40 minutes when I looked at a clock and realized the lateness of the hour. I was disappointed. We’d traveled 45 minutes for this meeting, including saying “no” to other appointments, and now it appeared that he was not going to show up.

I thought about other times our meetings had started late. I’d show up and be the only one there for some fifteen minutes until others sauntered in.

I pulled my phone from my pocket and called the president. It took him a while to pick up. “Hello.”

“Hi President, we’re at the building waiting for you.”

“What time is it?”

“It is about 3:40.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll be there in five minutes.”

He showed up some ten to fifteen minutes later. It was now after 4:00 and we had a commitment back near our home at 5:30 and would have to leave within 30 minutes.

A Change of Heart

The President immediately walked up and shook our hands. “Sorry,” he said and opened the door to his office. I was doing my best to be pleasant. I wanted to support him but was aware of some irritation slopping around and spilling over the edges.

You might remember that in my last blog I wrote about four styles of leadership—dominator, avoider, accommodator and collaborator. What would a dominator do or say in this circumstance? How about an avoider? Accommodator? Collaborator?

How about you? What would be your natural reaction? And what would you do or say in this circumstance?

I could have started our conversation with empathy. Certainly something had come up that made it impossible for him to be on time. And yet I also recognized that my natural tendency is to give people the benefit of the doubt (really a good thing) but sometimes at the sacrifice of honesty. So, I opted for bluntness. “We’ve been here for an hour now. We changed our plans to be here this afternoon and are not feeling happy that you just arrived.”

I remember his wide eyes and the look of panic on his face. My statement unsettled him.

“I’m really sorry,” he stammered, shaking his head. “I couldn’t get a train home last night and so caught a bus that took all night to get into Delhi. And then I didn’t sleep a wink. When I finally got in this morning I decided to take a nap before our meeting but I didn’t wake up until you called. I’m really sorry.”

His explanation of his tardiness caused a shift inside of me. The stuff I’d been making up in my mind about why he was late was distorted. My guesses were off the mark.

I was also aware that we are coming from different cultures. Indians don’t think of time the same as Americans and it is not simply a matter of someone being right and someone being wrong. Besides, he may have thought of calling but felt intimidated. He wanted to please us and having such a conversation may have been challenging. Easier to let things unfold.

“I didn’t realize you had traveled all night. You have to be exhausted.”

He talked more about his schedule and hassles of the past week. My wife and I listened and nodded in empathy. we really do love this man. He is doing his best in a difficult world and deserves our support.

Empathy and Accountability

Nevertheless, the problem of tardiness is habitual, not just from him but all our leaders and members. Were are aware that they can be very casual and easy-going about time and that they could not fully accomplish their vision if they didn’t bring some accountability to their commitments.

So after listening,  I opted for more honesty. “I feel bad about your schedule, how tired you are, and fact that you haven’t had more time with your family. However, I also have to say that this happens often, not just today.” Then I was quiet.

“It is true. You are right. You are right.”

“There are consequences.” I said.

We talked about three or four. I wanted them to sink in, so he could become more aware of the impact of his tardiness.

“You know, we’re here to support you,” I said. “You really aren’t accountable to us. We simply want to help you achieve your vision and it seems like that can only happen if we are honest with each other and if we keep our commitments to each other. Would you agree?”

“Yes,” he replied. “I appreciate the help you’ve been to me. I’m grateful and won’t be late in the future.”

Quadrant 4 Leadership

I am still learning to be a quadrant 4 leader. It requires skills in empathy and listening, a willingness to make positive assumptions about people and draw them out, to more deeply understand their experience and point of view. It simultaneously requires openness and directness in communication, a willingness to disclose how we feel as well as share feedback with others about our concerns and how their behavior is affecting us and others.

Most of us are good at one or the other. The key is to do both, flipping continuously between empathy and honesty, especially in the middle of conflict or during our most sensitive conversations. We are trying to create a shared understanding of the feelings and perceptions of all parties. If I simply want to get my own feelings out on the table and not listen I cause people to either fight or shut down. On the other hand, if I only want to listen and understand their point of view I fail to take care of my needs and give them new information to widen their understanding and choices. The best communicators, quadrant 4 leaders, are adept at both of these skills.

Fortunately, our relationship with this president became stronger on this day as a result of our honesty and empathy. He took our words seriously and yet felt our underlying care and support. We now speak more frankly. We take each others words more seriously. He has gone out of his way to emphasize the importance of commitments with the rest of his presidency and other leaders. We feel greater unity and are progressing more rapidly. This would not happen without both sides of the communication coin–empathy and honesty.



  1. Carroll

    I read this while waiting for Gary to get a test done. Such pertinent words. I’ve had a problem with being too aggressive when upset about something. Had to clean up a lot of messes in the past. Luckily not so many these days. Blessings on you both

  2. Pam

    OR he could have just said…” I chose to be late”…someone I dearly admire taught me that. *wink* *wink*

    • Roger Allen

      I still remember. You definitely got the advanced lesson on this principle.

  3. Seth Jenson

    Loved this article. It was a real eye opener for me. I want to learn how to be a quadrant 4 leader and a better communicator in my personal and business life. How do I learn more about this?

    • Roger Allen

      I’m glad you liked the article. I want to write much more on our communication in upcoming blogs. A good book on this topic is Crucial Conversations.

  4. Richard Corey

    This is a great article. I really enjoy the lessons.


  5. Merlin Jenson

    An excellent real life example. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Joye Whitaker

    Great article. Your approach to this problem was wonderful. You taught us this well at HDI. Tardiness says “I’m more important than you. My time is more important than yours” I’m surprised at the number of people who use tardiness as a passive aggressive way of saying they aren’t going to be controlled by anyone. Am I wrong?

    • Roger Allen

      Hi Joye. Thank you. I’m glad you liked the article. I think you are right about the motives of some/many people who are chronically late. They resent demands on their time or people who “impose” these demands but those who are tardy may be unaware of their feelings or not have the skills to talk about their feelings and so act them out, as you say, in passive aggressive ways.

      But I think there may be other reasons people are chronically late as well. Some people are simply disorganized and scattered which manifests in many ways including being late. Some people are overly optimistic about how much they can get done and cram too much into too little time. Some are casual and easy going about all their commitments. They may not care as much as some of us conscientious people. Some cultures are more casual and less disciplined than others. Some people would be uncomfortable, socially awkward, showing up early and so they try to time it too close and end up being late. Some may use it for attention. Some because they think they are better than others and the same rules don’t apply to them. Some have social anxieties and it may feel noxious to be in a group. They avoid it as long as they can. (I think I’m rambling.)

      This said, I do agree with you that many people who are late are acting out a hidden resentment. Sometimes it is because the don’t like to be controlled. Perhaps expanding this a bit, it may be because they are living a life of obligation and resent demands which they experience as being imposed from without. They feel, usually unconsciously, like they are being driven by someone else’s agenda and not their own. They are going through life to please others and don’t feel like they are in control. This breeds resentment and a tendency to resist life in many ways, including being late (as you said).

      Underneath all of these reasons for not being on time, when chronic, is a lack of personal responsibility. When I “own” responsibility for myself I’m in the drivers seat. I make more conscious choices about what I do and don’t do, including how I use my time. I may not always be excited about the next meeting but I go because I said I’d go. I am on time because it is included as part of my commitment to the meeting. If the meeting or commitment doesn’t serve me then I’m willing to be honest about it and renegotiate. I have both the awareness and willingness to communicate in honest ways. (You may have inspired me to write a blog on this topic.)

  7. Joye Whitaker

    Thank you for your thoughts about my comment. I wish you would write a blog about this. I thought your response had so many points well taken and gave me more tolerance for tardy folks. When I am in charge I start meetings on time when sometimes only a few people are there. When people arrive they have to sneak in and for some it’s embarrassing, other people are oblivious.
    My kids agree that there are many reasons that people are late and some things are out of our control.
    This is an older subject but since it comes up so often, I read your comments to help me find balance with this issue.

  8. dal

    Thanks for sharing this and I read it with interest.
    I think the wrong guy is the President here. Especially if he is unaware of how late he is.

  9. L. Johnson

    You are in India. You must adopt to their culture. East Asia operates on a thoroughly different understanding of time and punctuality is not a concept in their culture. You were rude to this man and egotistical to believe that all of India will or should accommodate your American cultural expectations. Get used to tardiness. The man actually arrived early according to their expectations. As well, the directness I am expressing is an American way and a very poor way to communicate to someone in that culture. If you were from India I would soften this message substantially.

    • Roger Allen

      Hi L. Johnson. You make good points and I have wrestled with this question a great deal during our stay in India. I have at times been concerned about coming across as rude and arrogant and I don’t really want to impose American culture on the Indian people. In fact, I’m not here representing American culture but a religious culture which the two of us share. We have a common vision which we can only accomplish as we make and keep commitments with each other, including honoring time. Many Indian leaders with whom I work are also trying to instill this in our congregations. It is a problem when some come on time and others arrive quite late. Those who come early (and I’m talking about Indians not Americans) can begin to feel like those who are chronically late are not respectful of their time and priorities. How do we address this concern in a respectful way? I believe we have to do so by deepening the communication in our relationship. We have to be able to talk about our perspectives, needs, and feelings always respectfully and then decide upon a common vision and the values (even rules) by which we’ll act and treat each other. I think we can all change and grow by engaging in such a process, me as well as those with whom I’m laboring. Roger


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