Someone who is frequently late sends the message that he or she does not care. That may not be true, but that is the message, and it may injure his or her chances for rapport. So, our accuracy with time often broadcasts a signal about our priorities, though it may not be the signal we intend.
Because time is viewed as such a scarce resource, whom we choose to spend it with is often taken as a signal of whom we care about. You can build more productive relationships by simply stating out loud why you spend your time as you do. Let us say you are a manager who absolutely must spend some time returning a series of important phone calls. You might tell your employees: “Hey, I am going to be out of pocket this morning on an important matter I cannot dodge. But I should be free by early afternoon, and the door to my office will be open, as usual. Thanks for understanding.” That way, those you usually talk to will not feel shunned.
Time also can be used to demonstrate how we feel about others in terms of their status and power. If the president of the company calls a junior manager to her office for a meeting, the manager will probably arrive before the appointed time. Because of the difference in status, most subordinates would probably feel that any inconvenience in waiting ought to be theirs. The president’s time is implicitly regarded as worth more and, therefore, is not to be wasted.
Nonetheless, the longer people are kept waiting, the worse they are likely to feel. Imagine a middle manager summoned to a meeting with the president at 1:00 p.m. She arrives at a respectful 12:50, and remains comfortable until 1:10, when she asks the secretary to remind the president that she is there. If the secretary checks and then conveys that the president will be right with her, the manager will probably remain comfortable until around 1:25.
By 1:45, however, she is likely to be quite angry and to assume that the president does not really care about seeing her. If the president then has the manager sent in and proceeds directly to the business at hand without offering an explanation, the manager will probably feel hurt. This may affect the meeting and the relationship negatively.
On the other hand, if the president apologizes and shares some inside information while explaining why he is running late, the manager is more apt to get over it because, after all, the boss’s time is very important.
Human beings like reasons for things. If you have a good reason for being late, you have a chance to do some damage control. A legitimate excuse and some reassurance can help the other person feel better. And the longer a person is kept waiting, the more reassurance is required to neutralize the irritation.