Everything Is Urgent! Everything Is Urgent! Everything Is Urgent!
It’s the middle of a client meeting. There are six of us. We are discussing the rather dismal results of a team’s level of engagement. The conversation includes long-term measures and changes needed to fix things. It started late because the leader was not exactly punctual. Suddenly her phone rings.
“Just a second,” she quickly states, “this call is important.”
The leader disappears for 20 minutes clenching a mobile phone as if it were the Holy Grail that Indiana Jones was once after. I wonder what could be more important than her team’s level of engagement. Perhaps it was her boss. Maybe it was an irate customer.
Whatever it was, she left in a flash.
The team she leads is the first line of defense. They are the front-line employees tasked to interact with customers every single day. If those employees are not engaged—and demonstrating a sense of purpose in what they do in their roles—customers will continue to be unsatisfied, as they have indicated in recent customer satisfaction surveys.
When the leader returns and sits down in her now lonely chair, the next sentence she utters is telltale.
“I’m sorry about that. My boss needs some data for a meeting next week. Can we reschedule this meeting for another time? He’s in a bit of a panic.”
Being respectful, I nod and say, “Of course, no worries. We can pick this up at a more convenient time.”
But did I ever blow it. I failed.
Not only did I acquiesce and fail to push back, but I also did nothing to warn the client about a disease that is running rampant across corporations everywhere.
Our urgency and importance bias is killing our thinking, as well as our productivity. I find it’s linked to anemic levels of employee engagement, too.
Let’s analyze what happened in this client meeting to better understand.
First, the leader was late for the meeting. What type of example is she setting when a topic as critical as the engagement of her team is the focus, yet she does not possess the capacity to show up on time, let alone arriving early to prepare?
Second, the leader took the call and physically departed from the meeting. Yes, crises occur, and yes phones can be answered. I am not suggesting to toss your phone into the ocean. But instead of asking her boss whether the matter was urgent—which it clearly was not—she employed obsequiousness. The leader caved to the burning and unrealistic demands of her boss instead of focusing on what was critically important to her team, and the fate of her success at the organization. It was clear to me she did not possess the skill to protect her time, or to prioritize what matters most at the moment.
Third, the leader’s boss clearly runs a culture of interruption and systemic exigency. He has no issue making unwieldy demands on his team members even if it is detrimental to the health, wellness, and engagement of the team members under his watch. The leader I was working with could not escape his “everything is a crisis” mannerisms. But the boss had created a culture of urgency instead of one of empathy, respect, and pragmatism.
All of it leads to an extreme case of what researchers call “urgency bias.”
Research conducted by Meng Zhu, Yang Yang, and Christopher K. Hsee found there is an inherent flaw in the human condition; we choose urgent and unimportant tasks over those tasks that are deemed more important, that require more time and effort to complete.
The researchers write, “We people may choose to perform urgent tasks with short completion windows, instead of important tasks with larger outcomes, because important tasks are more difficult and further away from goal completion, urgent tasks involve more immediate and certain payoffs or people want to finish the urgent tasks first and then work on important tasks later.”
This discovery by the researchers seemed to be at least part of the problem with my client. She fell into the trap of “urgency bias” instead of doing the long, and hard work of finding ways to improve the engagement of her team. Of course, her boss was also mired in a state of “urgency bias.”
The researchers also uncovered the underlying mechanisms through which people make trade-offs between urgent/non-urgent and important/non-important tasks. “The restricted time frame embedded in urgent tasks elicits attention, diverting focus away from the magnitudes of task outcomes, and thereby leads people to exhibit the mere urgency effect.”
In other words, the “urgency effect” arises from the relative difference of attention between time and outcome. If we have to put in too much time and effort, we’re liable to take the urgent and unimportant task that interrupts us.
How did I fail my client? How did I blow it?
In private, I should have taken the opportunity to remind her of the example she was setting. I could have illustrated how she was succumbing to “tyranny of the urgent” syndrome, and of course her “urgency bias.”
I might have helped her see that our most precious assets as a leader are time, presence, and our ability to practice open thinking.
While You’re Here…
I call it Open Thinking, the return to a balanced archetype of reflection and action; the poised intertwining of Creative, Critical and Applied Thinking.
Full details are found in my new book, OPEN TO THINK: Slow Down, Think Creatively, and Make Better Decisions, now available for purchase.
It is time to rethink our thinking.
And why not watch the TED Talk?