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Combating a Culture of False Urgency at Work

In today's fast-paced work environment, it can feel like there is never enough time to complete tasks. Constant connectivity from smartphones and other devices reinforces the idea that work should always be a top priority. However, this "culture of constant connectivity" and never-ending urgency is taking its toll on organizations and employees. While some level of urgency is necessary to meet deadlines and tackle problems, much of the urgency felt on a day-to-day basis is actually false. This false sense of urgency creates unnecessary stress, reduces productivity, and harms employee well-being and retention. As leaders, it is important to recognize the signs of a culture of false urgency and take steps to combat it. By setting clearer boundaries, prioritizing effectively, and focusing on outcomes over activity, leaders can create a more sustainable work environment where employees are engaged and able to do their best work.


Today we will explore how leadership can combat a culture of false urgency through setting boundaries, prioritizing work effectively, and focusing on outcomes over perpetual activity.


Research Foundations

Scholarly research has demonstrated the negative effects of constant connectivity and a culture of false urgency. Studies have shown that the inability to disconnect from work leads to increased stress, multitasking ineffectiveness, and reduced focus and problem-solving abilities (Mark, Voida, & Cardello, 2012; Mark, Gudith, & Klocke, 2008). When employees feel they must be constantly reactive to emails, messages and minor issues, it reduces strategic thinking and focus on important priorities (Galluch, Grover, & Thatcher, 2015). Leaders play a key role in setting boundaries and culture, so addressing issues of false urgency is important for organizational performance and employee well-being.


Setting Boundaries to Combat Constant Connectivity

One of the key drivers of false urgency in organizations is the inability to disconnect from work due to constant connectivity. Employees feel pressure to constantly monitor and immediately respond to emails, messages and notifications, even when not technically "on the clock." This translates to long work hours and an inability to truly detach from the job. To combat this, leaders must explicitly set boundaries around work hours and expectations of availability.

Research shows that enacting clear work-life boundaries reduces stress, increases engagement, and fosters innovation (Clark, 2000; Kossek et al., 2006). When employees feel pressure to constantly be available, it reduces psychological detachment from work during non-work hours (Sandelands & Buckner, 1989).


Setting Boundaries in Technology: In the technology industry, around-the-clock availability is often the norm due to global operations and quick product release cycles. However, companies like Microsoft have recognized the need to shift this culture. Microsoft issued a "right to disconnect" policy encouraging employees to ignore emails after typical work hours, allowing for recharging (Gibbs, 2014). Google also utilizes an "out-of-office" notifier on emails during non-work hours to signal when a reply may be delayed (Austin, 2018). Setting clear communication norms like this reduces the pressure to constantly respond.


Setting Boundaries in Consulting: In consulting, travel and long client site schedules may blur work-life boundaries. Firms must communicate clear expectations for non-billable personal time, even on client premises or trips. For example, large consulting firms like Accenture, Deloitte, and PwC prohibit internal emails after typical work hours and strongly discourage client communication during personal evenings and weekends except for important issues. Leaders at these firms coach consultants on utilizing out-of-office messages and ignoring non-urgent requests when officially off-duty.


Setting Boundaries in Healthcare: While 24/7 patient care requires some flexibility, healthcare leaders can still foster boundaries. Hospitals like the Mayo Clinic explicitly state personal time expectations for roles like nurses and physicians to prevent constant work availability. Having on-call coverage and limiting non-urgent notifications after hours to designated staff reduces burnout risks. Outlining clear communication protocols with these parameters sets the tone that personal time away from work is acceptable and prioritized by leadership.


To combat constant connectivity and an always-on culture, leaders across industries must proactively define and role model clear boundaries around work hours and availability expectations. Using email auto-replies, clarifying non-urgent communication blackout periods, and limiting non-work hour notifications reduces the driver of false urgency around perpetual responsiveness.


Prioritizing Effectively to Focus on What Really Matters

When employees feel overwhelmed by the amount of competing priorities and urgent but unimportant tasks, it fosters an environment of false urgency. Leaders play a key role in setting priorities to focus teams on strategic goals and value-adding work.

Studies show ineffective prioritization reduces satisfaction and commitment while increasing stress and turnover intentions (Boyar et al., 2016; Franco-Santos et al., 2014). When employees feel overwhelmed or uncertain about where to focus their efforts, it breeds unnecessary urgency around low-impact tasks.


Prioritization in Technology: At Apple, executives are strict about limiting the total number of company-wide priorities at once to prevent employees from feeling pulled in too many directions (Isaacson, 2011). Management ensures teams focus first on initiatives that directly support key goals, like next product launches or growth strategies. Lower-impact operational tasks only receive attention as bandwidth allows.


Prioritization in Consulting: McKinsey and Bain clarify project prioritization for consultants upfront to ensure strategic client work receives necessary resources and attention. Status reports track progress on the highest impact deliverables first before chasing lower priorities or scope creep. If additional minor tasks arise, leadership assesses importance versus disruptions to current strategic work.


Prioritization in Healthcare: At Johns Hopkins Hospital, leaders utilize priority matrices in staff meetings to ensure clinical and operational teams focus on initiatives directly improving patient outcomes and experience over administrative paperwork or metrics. Projects receive adjusted deadlines or resources if leadership deems them lower impact to current strategic priorities.


In all industries, clearly communicating top priorities and deprioritizing or delaying lower impact work prevents falsely urgent, perpetual reactive behavior. Using prioritization tools at planning and review stages focuses employee efforts on initiatives that move organizational strategy forward.


Focusing on Outcomes Over Endless Activity

When employees feel rushed to constantly be doing something or perceived as busy, it fosters feelings of false urgency. Combating this takes leadership focus on outcomes rather than activity levels.

While activity can boost short-term productivity, excessive focus on staying busy without strategic goals reduces problem-solving, creativity and long-term performance (Amabile & Kramer, 2011). Outcome-focused cultures see 30-50% higher productivity according to multiple studies (Neumann, 2018; Vogus & Singer, 2016).


Outcome Focus at Amazon: Amazon rates professionals not on face time or meetings, but results like new customer acquisition or revenue growth. Employees are empowered to work asynchronously as needed to achieve goals rather endless activity reports (Stone, 2013). This prevents false urgency around busywork over impactful work.


Outcome Focus at Apple: Rather than micro-manage teams, Apple leaders clearly define project objectives and provide autonomy to achieve them however teams see fit (Isaacson, 2011). Progress updates focus on sharing results and addressing roadblocks rather than activity levels or hours worked.


Outcome Focus in Healthcare: At Kaiser Permanente, leaders hold managers accountable for continuously improving key outcomes like health indicators, patient satisfaction and cost of care rather than process adherence or activity metrics (Birney et al., 2016). Teams innovate care delivery as needed to boost outcomes versus forcing activity for activity's sake.


Across functions, clarifying strategic results expected rather than activity behaviors prevents falsely urgent, perpetual busyness that reduces impact. Providing autonomy within clear outcome frameworks shifts focus to quality work over quantity metrics. Regular progress reviews emphasize sharing what was achieved versus listing busy tasks.


Conclusion

In today's hyperconnected workplace, constant connectivity and an endless list of competing priorities fosters a culture of false urgency that reduces employee focus, productivity and well-being. Leaders play a key role in combating this by proactively setting boundaries around work hours and availability, prioritizing teams' efforts strategically, and focusing accountability on outcomes achieved rather than perpetual activity. Whether in technology, consulting, healthcare or other industries, emphasizing quality over quantity of work through clarifying expectations, communicating priorities and reviewing results rather than activities creates a more sustainable work culture. By recognizing and addressing signs of false urgency, organizations see increased employee engagement, retention of top talent and overall performance to better serve customers in today's competitive market.


References

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Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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