Training Managers to Avoid Creating a False Sense of Urgency

One sign of a culture of false urgency is when employees feel compelled to work at nights and on the weekends because that’s the only time they feel they can do “real work” after spending their days in meetings.

Some employees feel compelled to check their e-mail while on vacation, or to provide their mobile phone number in out-of-office auto-response messages, even while taking paid time off. I believe those are actions a person takes when they feel a false sense of urgency. In rare circumstances—such as a medical practice with just one doctor—that sense of urgency can be genuine. However, for most people, there is no real need for other people to always be able to reach them.

For the well-being and efficiency of your organization, it’s important to ensure your managers are not creating a false sense of urgency, according to a recent staff post from BusinessReport.

“Executive coach Dina Denham Smith, who works with Adobe, Netflix, PwC, Dropbox, Stripe, and numerous other high-growth companies, writes that even great leaders can inadvertently create false urgency and damage their team’s morale, well-being, and performance. As stress and burnout in leaders and employees remain alarmingly high, she argues, leaders must recognize the distinction and root out false urgency from their teams,” the post notes.

Working After Hours

One sign of a culture of false urgency is when employees feel compelled to work at nights and on the weekends because that’s the only time they feel they can do “real work.” Their workday time in the office or while on duty during the workweek from home is taken up by endless meetings and phone calls. Is even a fraction of those meetings necessary? I have found a meetings culture can feed into a false sense of urgency culture. Is a matter really so important that it can’t be addressed through an e-mail exchange or a 10-minute phone call with one or two individuals, versus a large group video meeting?

I once had a manager who was a master perpetrator of false urgency. Not surprisingly, I found it impossible to concentrate during workdays at the office. When I was first hired, he recommended that I take article drafts home with me on the weekend to read out loud in various parts of my apartment. He lived in a large house in the suburbs of New York City, and said he would take the drafts with him from room to room in his house to see if they sounded different to him depending on where he was reading them. He was likely in search of an escape from his own sense of urgency.

E-mail or Phone First

I once freelanced as a contract employee in an office that had as a stated part of its culture that employees should always try to communicate via e-mail first before calling for a meeting or even phoning a colleague. At the time, I thought it was strange that this approach should be spoken about and taught to employees, but now I think it was a great idea. The reality is that most communications and decisions are not important enough to take 30 to 60 minutes, or longer, of multiple employees’ time.

When you create a false sense of urgency, an office environment also can become chaotic, disorganized, and hard to work peacefully in. Employees are led to believe everything must be dealt with immediately, so they are likely to walk up to co-workers’ desks many times per day to ask questions they don’t need the answers to that minute or even that day. Or they ask questions they could find the answers to themselves with a little legwork.

Triage E-mails

Another key to avoiding a false sense of urgency is to train employees to “triage” e-mails and other work requests. I start each day by opening my e-mail to see at a glance what, if anything, I need to deal with immediately. Usually only one or two messages would benefit from an immediate response. Most of the messages I leave for later in the day, or even the end of the day, after I’ve completed my deliverables for the day.

Reducing “Meeting Manager” Positions

I have found that it’s easy to create a false sense of urgency when you’re a manager who has no deliverables and whose whole job is going to meetings and deliberating. When that’s your focus, but you have employees whose primary job is completing work that comes in written or other form, problems arise. You assume the employee also has endless time for meetings and conversations, forgetting that they have promised assignment deadlines to meet.

One idea to put what’s truly urgent into perspective is to reduce the number of positions in an organization that have meetings as their primary responsibility. Everyone should be working toward the completion of concrete, trackable tasks. When everyone is responsible for completing specific tasks, everyone is focused on prioritizing what truly needs to get done—right now.

Do you train managers to avoid creating a false sense of urgency? If so, how do you do that?