In today’s fast-paced business landscape, characterised by heightened connectivity and relentless competition, the need to work with a sense of urgency is more prevalent than ever. However, not all urgency is created equal. False urgency, often disguised as high initiative and activity, can be counterproductive, leading to stress and burnout among leaders and employees. In this article, we’ll explore the signs of false urgency and how leaders can address this issue within their teams while fostering a culture of true urgency.
We are more connected and agile than ever, working at high speed to stay on top of workloads and remain competitive. A sense of urgency and scarce time permeates every day.
However, too often, much of the frenetic activity in organisations is false urgency: unproductive busyness that doesn’t lead to meaningful progress. While false urgency has always existed to some degree, the pandemic, heightened connectivity, and the expectation for rapid responses have stealthily solidified its presence.
Of course, you want your team to act with genuine urgency about what matters most. But it’s easy to mistake false urgency for true urgency — both look like high initiative and activity. As stress and burnout in leaders and employees remain alarmingly high, leaders must recognise the distinction and root out false urgency from their teams.
Recognise the Signs
False urgency can insidiously infiltrate an organisation, even without deliberate intent. Leaders may unknowingly create an atmosphere of chronic overwhelm and reactivity, causing their teams to constantly respond to perceived crises. This continuous “jumping” between tasks can hinder meaningful progress and drain team energy. To identify false urgency, leaders should look for signs such as apologising for frequent fire drills, working on evenings and weekends, and receiving feedback to prioritise more effectively.
Pinpoint the Source of Urgency
Understanding the source of urgency is critical to distinguishing between genuine and false urgency. False urgency often stems from anxiety or fear of negative consequences. For instance, an employee may rush to complete a task out of the fear of disappointing clients or damaging relationships with senior executives. Leaders should introspect and question their motivations, reframing limiting beliefs that may contribute to false urgency. Encouraging respectful challenges and spirited debate can help shift the focus from anxiety-driven urgency to a more productive work environment.
One of the challenges in addressing false urgency is prioritising the important over the urgent. Research indicates that humans tend to prioritise tasks with shorter deadlines, often neglecting more significant long-term goals. To overcome this, leaders can create psychological distance by imagining the situation from a future perspective or by considering what advice they would give to another team. Focusing on the potential gains of abandoning efforts that have already been invested in can also be an effective strategy.
Creating psychological distance is one technique that can help you stay focused on the big picture. Imagine physical distance, a separation in time, or that someone other than you is involved in the current situation. For example, you might ask yourself, “If I imagine it’s a year from now, what is the most important thing for us to do now?” Or “If this was someone else’s team, how would I advise them to prioritise what’s on their team’s plate?”
Additionally, deliberately focusing on the potential gains of abandoning ideas and endeavours into which you’ve already invested time, money, or effort. Ask yourself: “What are the advantages of discontinuing? What will it cost us if we don’t suspend our efforts?” It can be helpful to create reminders that subtraction is an advantageous option. Challenge your team to develop a list of everything they think the team could subtract or stop doing in the coming year.
Employ Strategic Procrastination
Procrastination, when used purposefully, can contribute to better outcomes. Strategic procrastination involves starting a task and gradually working on it over time to allow for deeper thinking and creativity to emerge. This approach may require resetting expectations and repatterning relationships with stakeholders to ensure more sustainable work practices.
This tactic may require resetting expectations and repatterning relationships with stakeholders, as it did for Ram. As Ram allowed himself and his team more time to complete stakeholder requests, he effectively managed their expectations by proactively communicating timelines and articulating the reasons for them. Over time, this reset stakeholder expectations and reduced their dependency on his team to quickly solve their problems, allowing for a more sustainable pace and often better final product.
Vet External Requests and Buffer Your Team Leaders
often face a deluge of external requests that may contribute to false urgency. It’s essential to shield the team from unnecessary pressure by evaluating the true urgency of these requests. Leaders can engage in discussions with stakeholders to consider trade-offs and strategic thinking before committing to new demands. Empower team members to question requests that have unrealistic timelines or fall outside their scope, and offer support in delivering “no” or “not now” responses to external stakeholders.
For example, let’s say your boss makes a new request of you or your team. While you want to show willingness, leaders are often unaware of the effort necessary to fulfil their demands and the trade-offs required. Rather than quickly agreeing to the new request, you might say, “We’re willing to do what it takes, of course, but would you be open to discussing the trade-offs first?” After all, considering the costs and benefits of different courses of action is strategic thinking at its core and fundamental to effective executive leadership.
If your team members are juggling many outside requests, give them clear guidelines about which ones to accommodate and empower them to question requests that have unrealistic timelines or fall outside the team’s remit. Be aware, however, that team members may be reluctant to push back on external stakeholders and more senior leaders. Bolster their efforts by consistently offering to step in and convey a considered “no” or “not now” to external stakeholders.
Foster a Team Culture of True Urgency
Creating a team culture that promotes true urgency is key to combating false urgency. Define clear criteria for urgent tasks, such as strategic alignment or critical client needs, and schedule regular reviews to reassess priorities. Establish communication channels and response-time expectations to ensure efficient and focused work. Encourage team members to challenge the urgency of tasks, making it psychologically safe for them to do so. Leaders should actively listen and acknowledge their team’s input, even if they ultimately maintain a deadline.
Work with your team to create norms that foster a reasonable operational tempo. Consider defining specific criteria for what constitutes an urgent task — such as strategic alignment, critical client needs, or safety concerns — and schedule regular reviews to reassess priorities and identify instances of false urgency. Also, establish appropriate communication channels and define reasonable response-time expectations based on urgency levels. For example, you might set a 24- or 48-hour response time to emails unless marked “urgent.” Without an explicit norm, your team will likely drop what they’re doing to answer your emails, even if they aren’t urgent.
Managing urgency in the workplace is a delicate balancing act. Leaders must recognise the signs of false urgency, pinpoint its sources, prioritise effectively, employ strategic procrastination, vet external requests, and foster a culture of true urgency. By addressing these issues, leaders can create a more productive and sustainable work environment, ultimately benefiting both the organisation and its employees.
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