Stop false urgency

Culture  Leadership
04 December, 2023

When everything is urgent, nothing is urgent. Reset your team’s operational tempo to bring the focus back to priorities.

I remember working with a colleague who liked setting “artificial” deadlines for his team. He would ask for work to completed well before it was due. He believed in building a buffer assuming that the team would delay in getting things done. This would lead to a constant frenzy causing a lot of stress and anxiety in the team.

My guess is that all of us have dealt with bosses or colleagues who like to create this kind of false urgency.

Such contrived haste is counter-productive, hampers productivity, inflates stress levels and erodes credibility. When everything is deemed urgent, the word itself loses meaning. As a piece in the Harvard Business Review observes:

Much of the frenetic activity in organizations 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.

As stress and burnout among employees remain at record highs, it’s more important than ever to address this issue. So, this week, my message focuses on curbing false urgency. What does it look like and what steps can we take to restore a more balanced perspective — as leaders and as individuals?

Often, managers seeking to create high-performing teams unwittingly create a sense of false urgency. For example, setting overly ambitious deadlines, assigning excessive above-and-beyond tasks, and scheduling innumerable meetings to address every little issue that arises.

All the above, in moderation, are par for the course. But when they become a way of life, then you have a problem. Team members are no longer able to differentiate between what is genuinely urgent and what can safely be shelved or done at a later date. As the HBR article remarks:

It’s easy to mistake false urgency for true urgency — both look like high initiative and activity.

As the team works at a relentlessly rushed pace, the work environment becomes increasingly reactive. Mistakes increase, quality of output decreases and opportunities are missed. Unsurprisingly, people start to feel overwhelmed and anxious, which ultimately diminishes performance instead of improving it.

Tackling false urgency: For leaders

Here are three suggestions for managers to combat the culture of false urgency in their teams:

1. Spot the signs.

Has crisis mentality become the norm in your workplace? Here are some tell-tale indicators to look out for: A chronic feeling of overwork and overwhelm. Confusion around priorities. Clogged calendars. Missed deadlines. A feeling that “real work” can only happen after business hours or on weekends. Phrases like “chaos”, “crazy” or “manic” used to describe business as usual.

If this rings a bell, then you may have inadvertently created a culture based in false urgency. Remember, as a manager, even casual remarks from you can drive the feeling that everything is an emergency. If you find yourself frequently saying things like “I need this yesterday”, “get to this ASAP”, “the sooner the better” or “this is absolutely critical”, then it’s time to become more intentional with the way you frame requests to team members.

2. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize.

Identifying truly urgent and important tasks is a fundamental skill that often gets forgotten in the hustle-bustle of work. Taking a step back can remind us which tasks on our plate are high-value, purpose-linked and impactful — and which tasks are low-value and taking up an unwarranted amount of energy and time.

As you and your team reassess priorities, it can also be helpful to define the criteria for urgent tasks. What qualifies as an urgent task? What is a reasonable response or action time? Which channels should team members use to communicate about these tasks? Work together to identify examples of falsely urgent tasks, so everyone can learn to recognise the difference. As far as possible, give your team the authority to question and investigate the urgency of tasks before committing to them.

The HBR piece also advises managers to overcome the sunk cost fallacy:

Deliberately focus on the potential gains of abandoning ideas and endeavors 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.

3. Resist externally imposed urgency.

Often, the sense of false urgency comes from outside the team, such as a senior leader, client or some other external stakeholder. Managers may feel pressured to accept such requests and, in turn, pass on the stress to their teams. Instead of instantly agreeing to all “urgent” requests, pause and ask questions. Try to determine if there is leeway with the timing, or if a trade-off can be made to ease the load on your team.

If your team is struggling with an over-full schedule due to external requests, help them decide which items should be prioritized and which can be put aside. You could also empower them to push back on tasks that aren’t feasible or don’t fall within their scope of work — but the effectiveness of this will depend largely on the culture of your organization. Many times, team members don’t feel comfortable questioning figures of authority or external stakeholders. In such a scenario, the senior-most leader around should step in as a buffer to shield the team from false urgency.

Tackling false urgency: For individuals

At a more personal level, the feeling of misplaced urgency can be worsened by our hyper-connected habits. Perhaps you feel you need to check your email and messages 20 times a day to be effective. But is that really the case? Does your role or industry call for this level of access? Or has it just become your default setting to be “always reachable”?

In most jobs, most requests can easily be attended to after a few hours. As a Business Insider piece notes:

Sometimes we even feel uneasy when we are out of range. Have you ever been someplace without cell phone service? Remember what that felt like? The real question is this — is that unease real or self-imposed?

For a reality check, ask yourself: How often do I actually receive time-sensitive emails or messages that demand instant action? If the answer is “rarely” or “once in a blue moon”, then you can safely adopt the much-healthier practice of checking your inboxes only at predetermined times, perhaps twice or thrice a day. This practice fends off distractions masquerading as urgent, hence protecting your focus and energy for deep, creative and important work.

Another antidote to false urgency is the ability to say “no” to tasks that either don’t create genuine value or don’t need to be turned around right away. Pushing back gently yet firmly on such requests from colleagues, bosses, partners, clients, and other stakeholders is definitely a skill worth learning.

Mistaking constant high alert for high performance has embedded a sense of false urgency in many workplaces. As teams spend far too much time fighting fires — some self-inflicted, others externally imposed — the real work gets derailed. If crisis mode has become the default at your workplace, it’s time to reset the operational rhythm and bring the focus back to priorities. Instead of false urgency, let’s cultivate a sense of “urgent patience”, an attitude aptly summed up by Leadership Now:

“Urgent patience” might sound like a self-contradictory term. It’s not. It means acting each day with a sense of urgency but having a realistic view of time. It means recognizing that five years may be needed to attain important and ambitious goals, and yet coming to work each day committed to finding every opportunity to make progress toward those goals.


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