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Meeting Deadlines in Work Groups: Implications for the Workplace

Does your team meet its deadlines?


Does your team meet its deadlines? What helps bring a group together to succeed?

Are you part of a project team or group at work or school? If so, do you have different pacing styles among the members of your group, some hot off the mark and done early, others waiting until the last minute? Do your team members share a common perception of the task and deadline? Do you ever provide reminders about project progress in relation to time? A recent study explored all of these factors in a study of how work groups met deadlines.

There's very little research published about procrastination, or timely task completion, in groups, yet lots of people are interested in the effects of having a procrastinator in a group. In a recent study published by Josette Gevers , Christel Rutte and Wendelien van Eerde (Eindhoven University of Technology, The Netherlands), the issue of different styles of temporal task engagement is addressed. Although they don't speak to procrastination specifically, their measures and data certainly reveal a great deal about what happens to groups that include individuals who prefer to work at the last minute.

Broadly speaking, the notion of "the procrastinator" was defined by a particular pacing style. Of the five pacing styles used in their study, the one described as "I do most of the work in a relatively short time before the deadline" certainly speaks to the issue of procrastination. Of course, not all aspects of the definition of procrastination are covered here. For example, there is no sense of a needless delay or one that necessarily will undermine performance, however most of us might characterize this last-minute effort before the deadline as a procrastinator in the group. This is in contrast to a pacing style described as "I start right away and finish the work long before the deadline." Certainly we all know people who characterize these pacing styles and the various types in between these extremes. We work with them daily, and each of us fits somewhere along this continuum for any given project (and our position may change on this continuum throughout our careers or depending on the project).

The key thing is, teamwork involves bringing together people with different understandings of the temporal aspects of tasks (e.g., understanding of the importance of meeting the deadline, task and/or sub-task completion times and the appropriate timing and pacing of task activities) and this can create problems in task completion. Gevers and her colleagues refer to the understanding of the temporal aspects of the task as "shared temporal cognitions," and they argue that there are two antecedents of this shared understanding: 1) similarity of pacing styles or preferences, and 2) the use of temporal reminders.

Pacing Style
Pacing style represent a person's preference for the allocation of time in task execution in relation to a deadline. As I noted above, this can be considered on a continuum from an early action pacing style ("start early and get it done") to a style that we might typify as the procrastinator ("work under the pressure nearer to the deadline").

Temporal reminders
Temporal reminders are tactics used to monitor group performance in relation to progress and the impending deadline. For example, group members may discuss time-related issues, remind each other of deadlines and urge group members to stick to sub-task completion as scheduled to ensure timely completion. Research has shown that talking about time in task groups facilitates the establishment of temporal norms and this discussion can foster a focus on task activity.

Taken together then, similarity of pacing style and temporal reminders can promote shared temporal cognitions which should improve the functioning of the group and the timely completion of group tasks. This is exactly what Gevers and her colleagues hypothesized in their study.

Their research
Gevers and colleagues studied 38 student groups with resulting usable data from 31 groups. They collected data longitudinally over 8 weeks for two assignments, including information about the individual group members' pacing styles, shared temporal cognitions and the use of temporal reminders. I described the continuum or pacing styles above, so I'll just give you a brief idea about their other measures.

For the shared temporal cognitions, they asked participants to indicate their agreement to items such as "In my group, we have the same opinions about meeting deadlines" and "In my group, we agree on how to allocate time available." Similarly, for temporal reminders, they asked participants to indicate their agreement to three items: 1) In my group, we have urged one another to finish subtasks on time, 2) In my group, we have reminded each other of important temporal milestones, and 3) In my group, we have prompted each other to stick to agreements.

Finally, meeting the deadline was assessed with one item. Participants indicated when they completed the group task on a 3-point scale: 1 = too late, 2 = just in time, and 3 = in ample time.

What they found
Their most intriguing and important finding was how the effects of shared temporal cognitions changed in relation to the pacing style of the group. For those of you who are statistically oriented, they found an interaction effect. In their own words, this is what they found,

". . . the effect of shared temporal cognitions on meeting the deadline is indeed moderated by mean pacing style . . . sharing temporal cognitions was beneficial to meeting a deadline when group members, on average, had an early action pacing style, whereas it was detrimental to meeting the deadline when group members, on average, had a deadline action pacing style" (p. 64, emphasis added).

They also found that temporal reminders used for the first assignment increased shared temporal cognitions for the second assignment.

What this means to us as we work in teams or manage teams
There isn't a big surprise with their main finding. "We conclude that homogeneous work groups composed of individuals who tend to use an early action pacing style in task execution are most likely to meet deadlines . . ." (p. 67). In other words, teams made up of individuals who start tasks early to finish early are better off.

However, they add this important note, " . . . in the long run all groups can acquire shared temporal cognitions when they use temporal reminders." (p. 67).

This means:

1. It may be beneficial to consider individual pacing styles when putting people into groups. Having even one member who has an early action pacing style can make a positive difference.

2. The use of temporal reminders may help to promote shared temporal cognitions in a group.

3. When group members fail to use temporal reminders spontaneously, managers may want to intervene to provide these or facilitate a focus on the temporal process.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that "all groups should be aware that sharing inappropriate temporal cognitions [e.g., deadline action pacing styles] is likely to impede their ability to meet deadlines" (p. 67).

My concluding thoughts . . .
As it is for the individual, "deadline action pacing styles" otherwise known as the procrastinator's life style is detrimental to timely completion of tasks and may undermine group efforts. Given that Gevers and colleagues cite earlier research that 56% of managers surveyed indicated that deadlines are often exceeded or missed, this is an expensive, wasteful cost to business.

Is procrastination or the pacing style associated with a "do it at the last minute" style just a problem of all-nighters and inconvenience? Not at all. It costs us all billions of dollars in wasted time and effort. Procrastination is something that affects the whole team, and managers need to put more emphasis on understanding why their employees are doing it and helping them to avoid needless and irrational delay.

Gevers, J.M.P., Rutte, C.G., & van Eerde, W. (2006). Meeting deadlines in work groups: Implicit and explicit mechanisms. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 55, 52-72.