The Wrong Kind of Flakes: Tardiness at HBS

There’s a creeping problem at HBS. It’s ugly. It’s annoying. It’s viral.

It’s flakiness.

We’ve all seen it. The friend who rolls up to a meeting 10 minutes late, coffee in hand. The sectionmate who shoots out a text just before an event saying “Can’t make it anymore”. Or the club member who doesn’t show up to an event after accepting your invite just days before.

Indeed, many HBS students are habitually late or no-shows to events that they planned to attend or for which they had RSVP’d. In particular, flakiness and tardiness seem most rampant at those events planned by peers, and not by professors or employers.

To some, this trend away from punctuality is not only annoying, but disrespectful. Showing up 20 minutes late to a dinner signals to other guests that one’s time is more valuable than others’. Furthermore, reneging on events often causes financial externalities like unnecessary car rentals or increased prices for attendees who saddle fixed costs among fewer people. Finally, habitual flakiness requires organizers to share numerous reminders, further clogging our jammed inboxes and diluting the impact of messaging.

In a community where respect for peers is a keystone of our culture, the current level of flakiness is surprising. We respect each other’s beliefs, backgrounds, and rights almost unequivocally. Somehow, though, we often forget to respect one of the most precious elements of our business school experience: time.

Almost all HBS students show up to class on time, almost all the time. Clearly, we are capable of timeliness. But somewhere in a fog of FOMO and Outlook chaos, a sense of “optimistic participation” has emerged. That is, the “I-better-say-yes-to-this-even-though-I’ll-probably-bail” attitude has prevailed over the “I-signed-up-because-I’m-going-to-be­-there” school of thought.

This pattern of tardiness and unreliability is contagious. When three people are late, it’s much easier for the fourth and fifth folks to show up even later knowing that they aren’t the outliers. The problem quickly snowballs when folks can hide behind a veil of numbers, knowing that their lateness will be diluted by others’.

Of course, emergencies happen. Friends pop into town without notice. Unexpected hangovers crop up. It is unreasonable to expect universal timeliness. In fact, at some larger social events, the expectation is that “fashionably late” is the norm. Certainly, our schedules are packed to the brim, almost as a rule. Managing numerous events within a dynamic schedule is challenging. Nevertheless, we should strive to set our bar higher when it comes to personal accountability for showing up and showing up on time.

Improving this issue requires only thoughtfulness toward peers and toward schedules, achievable in two ways.

First, improvement requires being honest with ourselves and with organizers before signing up for events. Too often, we try to be polite by responding positively to events that we know we probably will not attend. In fact, the more polite approach is to help your peers plan effectively. Not sure if you’ll be able to make it? Just say so.

Second, improvement requires diligence in sticking to schedules and being realistic about how long things take. We are often optimistic in planning meeting lengths and transportation time. Next time you schedule three back-to-back meetings, remember that they will likely run over by building in some buffer time in between. Next time you go to a dinner in Harvard Square, remember that it take 14 minutes to walk there from campus, not six.

We should not forget that our time and our peers’ time are precious here. Learning to manage and respect that time is one of the hidden lessons of our business school experience, and we should all strive for 1s.

December 5, 2012
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