A recent Harvard Business Review article 2023 titled “Beware a culture of busyness” captured our attention. The author provided a term social scientists call “time poverty” that refers to employees being increasingly focused on, and rewarded by, being busy. This busyness is a status, with visuals like wearing a Bluetooth headset seen as showcasing multitasking capabilities, and therefore a sign of success. Studies found that people who portray the image of working hard (regardless of output) are deemed to be “morally admirable” compared to people who are focused on, and driving meaningful output.
“Busyness has become a status symbol. People also consider those who exert high effort to be “morally admirable,” regardless of their output.”
– Findings from studies led by the psychologist Jared Celniker
The article went on to portray a cautionary tale for rewarding hard work and busyness over actually achieving company and department goals. The argument is that companies and cultures that place high values on how busy team members are often overlook the most valuable creative and productive talent — and actually decrease company productivity and efficiency as a result. The long-term impacts of this busyness culture include exhaustion, increased employee turnover, reduction in staff engagement and increased absenteeism.
It’s easy to see how employees and teams fall into this trap — but how can you escape it?
At Corporate Path Leadership, we believe that one of the best ways to change direction is to shine a light on the negative impacts on culture and team performance and discuss what positive impacts should be replacing them. In this case, we can think of two different work scenarios that can improve with a shift away from busyness and toward team and company results.
A company has succeeded at bringing in some new revenue through a last-minute Q4 push to find new clients and new types of projects. This same company has steep new revenue targets and growth goals for the current year ahead.
However, the client underestimated how much time and resources it would take to administratively serve the new clients. Now all resources have been called into “emergency mode” to help onboard and design new client and project success. Those same resources are now not focused on their usual 30% – 50% time allocation for finding and signing new clients.
NEGATIVE IMPACT: A few months in the future, this company learns that their pipeline is weak and revenue levels are shrinking — which creates another administrative emergency to focus on sales and driving leads.
CORRECTIVE ACTION: Think about where resources are most valued and where resources will be needed to drive current company goals.
- This may mean bringing in outsourced help to ensure that resources needed to drive revenue and leads aren’t distracted in administrative on-boarding help.
- Of course, the on-boarding short-term need is critical, but NOT disrupting long-term goals is more important.
A company has an 18-month strategic transformation project that just kicked off in the last 90 days. The challenge for the team involved in the project is that their day-to-day responsibilities are taking all of their time. The team has agreed that once the existing fires have settled down in the next 2 months, they will have time to start working on the 18-month initiative.
NEGATIVE IMPACT: The large 18-month project has many steps and needs for completion. The more the starting point is delayed, the less likely the project will be finished on time (if at all). Even if the project can be finished in 12 months instead of 18, the impact on quality of deliverables will certainly suffer if the project is rushed, and always viewed as something that can be pushed off if needed.
CORRECTIVE ACTION: While identifying resources to help off-load some of the daily responsibilities is ideal, that is not always realistic. Instead, determine bite size pieces for the 18-month project, and meet on a regular basis to make sure that the day-to-day routine is not delaying the important transformation project’s ability to keep moving forward.
- Some day-to-day responsibilities may need to be side-lined or scaled back to make time for the new project deliverables.
- Consider asking your team for their suggestions regarding what other work could be reduced or eliminated to ensure the new deliverables are met.
- Regular communication and status updates on the project, and why it is important to the team, are critical to keep it from becoming a “nice to have” afterthought.
- Setting up team rewards for meeting initiative milestones is another easy way to keep the project top-of-mind, and reward employees for the extra effort needed to complete it.
Use Your Influence
Don’t forget, you have an opportunity to directly influence — not only your focus on avoiding the busyness trap, but also the ability to ensure your team is rising above all that busyness to actually get things done. By pointing to and reinforcing the long-term needs, you not only advance your own leadership journey, but you can help your team become more focused and more productive in the interim.
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