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Lateness and Schedule Adherence - 7 June 2012

A decade ago, two New York City teenagers sued McDonald’s for making them obese. The teenagers claimed the food was the primary source of their weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, blood pressure, and cholesterol. The judges dismissed the case.

In psychology, the teenagers’ action is known as self-serving bias, a protective mechanism used to enhance their confidence by internalising successes and externalising failures. In other words, when something good happens to us, it’s because we did something to deserve it. But when something bad happens, it’s because of other reasons – or someone else’s fault.

In this case, the teenagers blamed McDonald’s (the external factor) rather than the internal factors of poor nutritional decisions and lack of exercise. Why? Because it made them feel better about themselves. Admitting culpability is a big hit to a person’s confidence.

Self-serving bias also occurs in school halls. When students do well in an exam, they’ll take credit for their success; they’ll be proud of the hours they studied and the material they memorised. But if they do poorly, they’ll blame the terrible teacher or the difficult questions.

It’s a phenomenon present in the workplace, too. When a manager accepts praise for work mostly done by the team, that’s self-serving bias. When an employee blames unfair management decisions for missing out on a promotion, that’s self-serving bias. And when employees chronically come in late but always resort to excuses rather than taking personal responsibility, that of course, is also self-serving bias.

It’s easier to blame bad public transport, malfunctioning alarm clocks, and other external issues than to own up and admit that personal tardiness and carelessness are causing the lateness. Here’s how to help employees overcome it.

Raise awareness: If lateness is seriously an issue, have a conversation about it – not just once in a while, but each time it takes place. Raising awareness should also encompass getting the employee to comprehend the impact of coming in late on co-workers, clients, and the organisation’s overall goals.

Provide objective information: It might be tempting, but be mindful you don’t use adjectives like “indifferent” or, as mentioned in the earlier paragraph, “careless”, even though that might be true. Adjectives represent a judgement on someone’s character, which just drives them deeper into self-serving bias. Simply stick to the facts.

Ramp up accountability: Ask employees for ideas on what can be done to help them arrive on time. Listen to their suggestions without discounting any of them, and put those ideas in place – even if you think they won’t work. This gives employees an opportunity to influence their own schedule adherence prior to formal performance management.

Relinquish some control: Consider whether it is really essential for employees to have set hours of work. In some departments, the answer to that will be yes. But, in others, maybe there is no reason for employees to be present from nine-to-five, in which case it might be wiser to let them work at times that are more convenient. (See the article below).

Watch for externalities: There are two externalities that are of particular relevance to lateness. The first is your own tardiness. If you’re regularly late yourself, that sets a low standard for others to follow. The second is that it’s sometimes effective to motivate people by offering a small reward to those who have perfect schedule adherence.

For a lot of us, self-serving bias is like a gherkin in a Maccas burger. It has to be taken out.


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