Tips that will help you focus on what’s truly urgent and enable your team to deliver strong results.
(Originally published in HBR. Image: Henrik Sorensen/Getty Images)
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 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.
Even great leaders can inadvertently create false urgency and damage their team’s morale, well-being, and performance. Take Ram, whose high performance bar led him to impose overly tight deadlines on himself and his team. Or Olga, whose dedication made her reluctant to push back on senior leadership and caused excessive additional work for her team. Or Seb, whose competitive spirit resulted in endless shifts for the team as he explored new ideas and trends.
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 recognize the distinction and root out false urgency from their teams.
Here’s how to ensure you don’t unwittingly create false urgency on your team and avoid its damaging downstream impacts.
Recognize the Signs
No leader intentionally fabricates false urgency, but it can surreptitiously embed itself and become a team norm. Overturning it begins with recognizing the signs: Are you and your team in a chronic state of overwhelm and reactivity? Do you catch yourself apologizing for yet another fire drill? Do you and your team only have time to do “real work” in the evenings or on weekends? Have you received feedback that you need to prioritize more? If any of these indicators are present, you may unintentionally create false urgency.
Appreciate that due to your positional power, your requests, casual spitballing, and even inadvertent reactions can cause your team to spring into action. Over time, your team may even begin to anticipate your needs and “jump” without you ever making a request. All this “jumping” sidelines the most critical work and results in perpetual job stress and burnout, draining your team of energy.
Pinpoint the Source of Urgency
False urgency reflects a genuine desire to succeed but is often rooted in anxiety. For example, Ram worried that if his team didn’t produce top-quality work at warp speed, they would disappoint their internal clients and be seen as uncooperative. Olga feared that pushing back would make her look uncommitted and damage her relationships with the executive team. Seb was concerned that he and the team might miss out on the next big thing and become less competitive.
Ask yourself, “What is the primary source of my urgency?” If it is rooted in anxiety, you may have limiting beliefs that keep you stuck in unproductive behaviors. The way out is to challenge your assumptions and reframe these beliefs. For instance, Olga reframed her belief — “Pushing back will make me look uncommitted and damage my relationships” — to “Respectful challenges are a sign of engagement and will enhance mutual respect.” After all, the best ideas are often forged in the heat of spirited debate.
Leaders can also unintentionally cascade and perpetuate a broader organizational culture of false urgency, neglecting to question the status quo. Regardless of the source of false urgency, your responsibility to improve things for your team remains the same.
Difficulty prioritizing the important over the urgent is a universal struggle and a key culprit in creating false urgency. Research shows that we prioritize tasks with the shortest deadlines, even if those aren’t the most important. We also default to addition rather than subtraction when trying to improve situations, and the sunk cost fallacy makes us loath to abandon efforts we’ve already invested in. And under stress, we often forget to step back to focus on what is most important.
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 prioritize what’s on their team’s plate?”
Additionally, 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.
Employ Strategic Procrastination
Procrastination typically has a negative connotation, but it can be helpful when used purposefully. Strategic procrastination involves starting something and not finishing it until it’s almost due, allowing you and your team to think about it gradually and eliminating the unnecessary rush of low-value work. This provides time to consider divergent ideas and enable insights to surface, and can result in increased creativity, innovation, and a better final product.
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
The inflow of requests we receive at work can be daunting. Some of these requests may be genuinely urgent, but most things can wait. As a leader, you must shield your team from external false urgency.
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 fulfill 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
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.
Give your team permission to challenge the urgency of tasks and provide feedback on instances of false urgency. It is hard for many people to push back on their leader, so make it psychologically safe for them to do so. When team members question deadlines, listen, consider, and acknowledge their point of view, even if you still need to insist on the deadline.
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The headwinds of false urgency can be intense. But they also foster a reactive culture. If everything is urgent, there’s little opportunity for creative and deep work, which tends to flourish only when there’s time and space. Utilizing these tips will help you focus on what’s truly urgent in your organization and enable your team to deliver strong results and sustain high performance over time.
With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina