The perception of wait time at work can be reduced by priming people to think in concrete, factual terms like assuming an employee is stuck in traffic, as opposed to subjective thoughts about individual behaviour, according to a study that may lead to new ways of managing workplace delays.
The study, published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, noted that abstract thinking at work generally leads to better outcomes, such as more creativity, and wider vision, but added that it can also contribute to undesired outcomes in stressful situations, such as while waiting.
"For example, if you are waiting for someone who is late to meet you, you are better off thinking in concrete terms, like assuming they got stuck in a traffic jam compared with abstract terms, like assuming they are disrespecting you," said study co-author Dorit Efrat-Treister from Ben Gurion University (BGU) of the Negev in Israel.
"We spend a part of our daily life waiting, and unfortunately, wait time can fuel aggressive tendencies," Efrat-Treister said.
In the study, the researchers arranged a meeting of people in a lab and each were told their partner was late.
Each participant waited in separate rooms for 30 seconds, five minutes, or 10 minutes, they said.
Participants who were prompted to think abstractly perceived the waiting time as longer, and reacted more aggressively than those that were led to think concretely, according to the study.
"When someone is late for a call, if you think abstractly, you may think they don't respect your time, or they don't think the call is important, and therefore you might become mad. But if you think they may have just misplaced your number or got another call first, you won't become so annoyed," Efrat-Treister added.
According to the researchers, participants who were born between the 1980s and early 2010s had an especially difficult time in the experiment without their cell phone, with self-reported high levels of aggression after waiting for even short durations of time.
"We showed that the level of abstractness influences how long or short one perceives actual wait time. Therefore, we can influence the perception of the wait time and thus manage aggression," Efrat-Treister said.
According to the scientists, it can be both costly and difficult for organisations to reduce wait time, and can require additional resources that may not be available.
They said managers can reduce the perception of wait time without adding resources by priming people to think more concretely and distracting them from the time that has passed.
"For example, medical offices might want to install video monitors with concrete information that distracts from long wait times," Efrat-Treister said.
"The leader of a meeting can focus on getting started and on the agenda rather than focusing on why a partner is late. Any concrete focus that prevents abstract thinking about waiting can be helpful," he added.