I’ve noticed corporations often operate from a baseline of persistent urgency. On the surface, urgency creates the illusion of an in-demand, fast-paced, and highly productive workplace. However, in my experience, a persistent culture of urgency often points to a management or leadership failure.
Admittedly, certain functions need to happen on short-time deadlines. Yet, if everything is urgent, there is a clear problem. After all, if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. So how can you operate more effectively?
In some cases, the underlying problem may be a failure to invest in developing one’s managers or leaders (i.e., ensuring they can manage priorities, hold team members accountable, and motivate others without fear). In other cases, the problem may have less to do with people and more with broken or absent systems. Whatever the underlying cause, I believe it is essential to understand the benefits of leading without urgency and how to achieve this goal.
THE COST OF LEADING FROM A PLACE OF URGENCY, CRISIS, AND FEAR
The perception that urgency is beneficial has long been part of American workplace culture. Retired Harvard Business School Professor John P. Kotter even spent part of his career promoting this idea. While Kotter does distinguish between good urgency (i.e., urgency “triggered by a big opportunity”) and bad urgency (i.e., urgency “based on fear or anxiety”), his thesis on workplace impact nevertheless pivots on urgency’s assumed benefits.
As Kotter argued in a 2014 Harvard Business Review article, “The weight of all my work and experience point overwhelmingly to the fact that in order to create change of real significance, to execute any new and different strategy, you need a sense of true urgency among as many people as possible. I have found that with less than 50% of managers and employees feeling that urgency, you’re very vulnerable to failure.”
Still, not everyone agrees that urgency is the best way to run a business. In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article, business professors Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan observe that urgency is frequently used to produce ideal workers or “people totally dedicated to their jobs and always on call.” Increasingly, there is an acknowledgment that this not only erodes work-life balance but also leads to burnout and higher attrition rates, which are ultimately bad for one’s bottom line.
Other researchers, including Liz Kislik, have noted operating in a culture of urgency can result in other problems. For example, it can negatively impact collaborations and sometimes prompt people to become overly reactive, leading to poor decision-making.
LEADING WITHOUT URGENCY
Leading without urgency is easier said than done because the first step is to break the cycle of motivating team members by creating a sense of crisis or fear. Fear (e.g., of being yelled at, falling behind others, or missing out) is an easy, short-term way to motivate team members because it tends to increase people’s adrenaline. But this doesn’t mean it is a good or sustainable approach.
I believe breaking the cycle starts by understanding individuals and their needs, which is itself an advanced leadership skill. Among other things, it requires leaders to take time to start building genuine relationships, articulating a vision, and mapping a path forward for their team.
Once done, the next challenge is to find new ways to motivate one’s team. Here are a few suggestions on how to get started.
Understand different types of motivation: In my work with senior managers and leaders, I’m often surprised to discover how few individuals understand motivation beyond the urgency paradigm. Motivating through urgency or fear are some of the most basic or primal ways to motivate people. Rather than focus on external and introjected motivation (i.e., a reward and punishment model), senior managers and leaders should focus on driving change via intrinsic forms of motivation.
Leverage intrinsic motivation: In sharp contrast to external motivation (e.g., motivating people with burning deadlines and threats of dismissal if they don’t live up to expectations), I believe the most effective leaders leverage intrinsic motivation. When employees are driven by intrinsic motivation, they are engaged in their work because they are committed to their work (i.e., they value the work because it aligns with their values, and they want to ensure it is done well and in a timely manner). Unlike external motivation, which requires constant supervision, intrinsic motivation is self-driven and self-perpetuating.
Invest in building relationships: To motivate beyond fear, you need to understand what makes them tick. This means investing in building relationships with your team members and, if they are responsible for managing their own teams, encouraging them to do the same with their own team members.
Empower team members to take ownership of their work: Once your team members are able to tap into their intrinsic motivation, it’s time to step back and let them take full control. To engage them in the outcomes, get them thinking about how their contributions are integral to the organization’s broader mission and purpose and how this aligns with their own values or goals.
Build a culture of leadership development: I believe the most important step is to start building a culture focused on leadership development and purpose planning (i.e., a culture where people are motivated to work with urgency not out of fear, but out of a shared desire to build something great).
Leading without urgency may feel counterintuitive, but I believe the benefits of doing a hard reset are clear. When you stop managing and leading from a place of persistent urgency, you can create a more reflective and collaborative workplace and one less likely to create the conditions under which burnout and attrition are ongoing problems. In the end, this can be good for team members, managers, leaders, and above all else, the bottom line.
Dr. Camille Preston is a business psychologist, leadership expert, and the founder and CEO of AIM Leadership.