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The Pros and Cons of Urgency

Urgency in the workplace has crucial uses — and some destructive misuses.

Yes, urgency may be exactly what’s needed to confront an actual emergency, serious risk, or persistent negative circumstance. But too many managers and senior leaders respond to urgency by putting up a Teflon shield, as if to say, “It’s not my problem, and I won’t let it affect me.”

It’s possible that the team leader truly doesn’t care, or that he’s actually unaware of what’s happening, or even that he’s operating like the proverbial duck: calm on the surface, but paddling like hell underneath to fix the problem.

Ignorance Isn’t Always Bliss

When a team leader deflects urgency, his colleagues can become both frustrated and untrusting. They assume he doesn’t care about their problems or the fact that they depend on his team’s work. There are few things more aggravating to a dedicated employee than someone who avoids taking action on a problem that’s been brought to their attention, especially if the only action necessary is finding the right person to deal with it.

Sometimes a leader won’t acknowledge a problem to his team members in order to protect them from outsiders or because he thinks they’ll do their jobs better if they’re not disrupted by negative feedback. But when team members later learn about the problem from others, they may wonder if their leader is out of touch with reality. Eventually, they’ll question his judgment altogether.

Ignore the Fire Alarm and You Might Get Burned

Even worse, some teams intentionally try to distance themselves from a problem: “If we act like everything’s fine, people will start to believe it, and they’ll stay out of our business.” At some point colleagues may feel the need to build shadow processes, or may hold private pre- and post-meeting gatherings to talk about the “real” situation without the stonewalling team.

When teams don’t come to the table with their game faces on and a true willingness to collaborate, the avoiders can actually become the face of the problem — and of other problems — even if they aren’t the cause of the original problem.

When Haste Makes Waste

A leader’s bias toward urgency can be equally destructive. Leaders who act as if everything is urgent are often perceived like the boy who cried wolf — people start tuning them out and become less interested, not as supportive, and, ultimately, even uncooperative. And if the leader considers all her issues to be urgent, but never treats others’ issues as similarly imperative, she won’t be perceived as a team player.

Leaders who are used to getting their way often dial up the urgency to focus attention on their concerns or their teams. More often, though, they’re so personally uncomfortable if their issues remain unresolved that they execute too quickly just to clear their desks.

Urgent managers who behave this way don’t consider other participants’ needs, or ask other employees for their opinions. They behave unilaterally because it’s the fastest way to finalize things — even if the resolution isn’t optimal. They often have no idea that their actions aren’t beneficial to the rest of the organization, or that their very decisiveness and single-mindedness is the source of others’ dissatisfaction and dissension.

Finding the Balance

So what’s the right amount of urgency? And how can you get there? Know what the underlying principles are in your business culture, and be mindful of the needs and expectations of both internal and external customers. And be sure to return often to those relationships for feedback to learn how well your approach is working — for you and for them.

Onward and upward,


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