The negative impact of an urgent culture

‘Working in reactive cultures can feel like constantly walking into a headwind’

The negative impact of an urgent culture

Unproductive urgency, and the resultant reactivity it creates has become an acute and chronic issue in many modern organisations, according to Dermot Crowley, director of Adapt Productivity.

We all seem to be moving at a million miles an hour, running from meeting to meeting, and dealing with email after email. When did everything get so busy, and become so damn urgent?

Crowley, who is also author of Urgent!, Smart Work and Smart Teams, said that urgency is a reality in our workplaces, but it is important we do not become victims of it.

“We need to take control and learn to manage it. If we do not, we will pay a high cost to our productivity,” said Crowley.

“I believe that most people want to do meaningful work that makes a difference. But working in reactive cultures can feel like constantly walking into a headwind. It is hard work.

“We need to take the issue of unproductive urgency seriously and put measures in place to minimise it as much as possible. We will never totally eradicate urgency, nor should we, but we can learn to use it in a more mindful and purposeful way. 

“You may see urgency as just a part of the territory, working in a fast-paced, customer-driven organisation.”

He added that there are a number of impacts of an “urgent culture” on productive teams:

Avoidable rework
Rework is a hidden but very real cost to businesses. In manufacturing organisations, a lot of effort goes into reducing wastage and rework in the manufacturing process. If a part is not manufactured correctly the first time, there is a very measurable cost to the bottom line for that product.

So, factories will have systems and processes in place to reduce the error rate. In fact, this will be one of the key stats that is measured daily. The efficiency of the manufacturing process is measured constantly to maximise productivity and profitability.

But unlike in manufacturing, knowledge work organisations may not see the wastage, downtime and rework that is created because of unnecessary urgency. Too much reactivity can lead to avoidable mistakes, wasting time and resources on redoing work.

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An increase in stress levels
In their white paper ‘A Theory of Workplace Anxiety’, Bonnie Hayden Cheng and Julie McCarthy cite research that indicates that 40 per cent of Americans report feeling anxious during their workday, and that 72 per cent of these people feel that this anxiety affects their work and personal lives.

Now of course there are many factors that might contribute to workplace anxiety, including cranky bosses, unhelpful colleagues or unrealistic workloads. But urgency is definitely a major part of the picture.

Increased anxiety is bound to affect performance and wellbeing. We do not think as clearly when we are anxious, we don’t feel as motivated, and sometimes we just opt out because of it.

A drop in the quality of our work
Whether we are reacting blindly to incoming urgency, or leaving things until the last minute ourselves, the quality of our work suffers. We make mistakes because we rush things. We compromise the finished product because we run out of time. And in the knowledge workplace, we lose the time to stop and think.

A recent KPMG Global CEO survey found that 86 per cent of global leaders struggled to find time to think about two of the most critical drivers in their businesses: disruption and innovation. In Australia that percentage crept up to 94 per cent. When you think about the role a leader plays in steering the organisation in the right direction, and navigating the challenges in a complex and volatile environment, not having enough time to think is very problematic.

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Burnout and attrition
This is the big one for me. If urgency becomes the norm in a team or an organisation, it becomes a part of the culture. While organisations may be able to operate through periods of high reactivity in short bursts, if working in the reactive zone becomes a long-term part of the culture, then burnout and attrition will surely follow.

People might not be able to name it as a reason, but they will have a feeling that has built up over time: feelings of increased stress, agitation and frustration. They might not mention chronic urgency as an issue, but they may say that they can no longer cope with the hectic pace. They might suggest that they would prefer a role that gave them more control over their work.

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