This article was based on episode 141 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Get 50% off the Happiness at Work Formula workbooks when you become a member at themodernmanager.com/join.
By the time I entered the workforce, computers were ubiquitous. I’ve heard stories and seen movies about a time before digital accessibility and can only assume that work naturally moved at a slower pace. We had the benefit of wait time built in. A document sent by (snail) mail could only travel so fast. A voice mail left on an office phone line could only be listened to while at the office. Organizing a meeting required more than clicking a link. Compare that to nowadays where it seems that every project needs to be done tomorrow, or better yet, yesterday!
I asked Brandon Smith,“The Workplace Therapist”, if this sense of urgency has always existed or if it's a relatively new phenomenon. He reassured me that actually, no, work didn’t always feel so urgent. Our world has changed in ways that our workplaces haven’t adjusted to. We are working ourselves too hard and it’s taking a toll.
In his book The Hot Sauce Principle: How to Live and Lead in a World Where Everything Is Urgent All of the Time, Brandon discusses our contemporary, intense work habits. Brandon explains that while a little bit of hot sauce is a good thing, too much overwhelms us. Small doses of anxiety and urgency can be a good thing, but too much creates an exhausted team. I spoke with Brandon about ways to better handle urgency in order to lead effectively, manage expectations, and prevent burnout.
PHONES, THE RECESSION, AND TECHNOLOGY: HOW URGENCY BECAME OUR NORMAL WORK ROUTINE
Brandon attributes this ever present sense of urgency to three major influences in society. First, he saw a definite shift in our work/life habits when iPhones and mobile devices became popular. They allowed us to work anytime, anywhere, blurring our work/life boundaries. Now, bosses could contact us at any hour and expect results before waiting for the next day to begin.
Second, our urgent work habits were also formed from the 2008 recession. Businesses, especially large ones, cut their expenses and personnel down to the bone. Workers were expected to do double the amount of work and yet be grateful just to have a job. When the recession ended, companies were reluctant to hire additional employees. Instead, they expected people to continue to work at this overloaded capacity.
The third factor is the technological shift that disrupted the retail industry, among others. The emphasis on speed has grown to be of great importance. Businesses are now required to be online and to act quickly. As consumers we expect customer service responses within hours if not seconds and items to be delivered in two days.
HOW TO SLOW DOWN AND CREATE BETTER BOUNDARIES
While our lives have sped up due to these factors, we can still deliberately choose to slow down. To do this, we need to clean up our communication habits and have honest conversations with our coworkers.
Establish a Foundation of Trust
A foundation of trust and credibility is constructed of consistent, positive interactions, many of which happen via email or messaging apps. In an absence of communication, people assume the worst; that we are ignoring them, are hiding bad news, are too overwhelmed, etc. This need to know what’s going on paired with the need to look like you’re on top of it results in unrealistic and unhealthy communication practices steeped in urgency.
The alternative is mutual trust that we’ll be informed in a timely manner and we’ll communicate at the right times. To develop this trus or to gain credibility points, we must respond reliably to emails or Slack messages, even if the response is simply to acknowledge the message was received.
If a longer response is needed, jot back “Got it, I’ll get back to you Monday” or “When do you need this by?”. This will establish a clear expectation and limit the back and forth “tennis email” game.
Don’t Send Emails After Hours
One simple change that can have immediate impact is the timing and expectations of email. While some people get their best work done at one A.M., emails sent after work hours disrupt our lives by creating an atmosphere of FOMO: What might I miss if I haven’t checked my email in 2 hours?!
Agree to communicate with your team only during work hours. Explain how this norm is intended to allow everyone time to unplug without consequence. If anyone prefers to work during those “off hours”, utilize the send later feature now available in most email systems. Schedule emails to be sent between nine and five during workdays.
By enacting this norm, you will not only role model healthy boundaries for your team, you will also demonstrate respect for their need to rest during evenings and weekends.
Speak With Your Manager To Set Realistic Expectations
Urgency often comes from the top. It’s hard to say “no” or “I can’t” to your boss, which leads us to pass along this urgency to our team members. If your manager expects too much in not enough time, you need to be able to effectively communicate that the amount of work is unrealistic. To do so, try thinking of your boss as your customer. This framing shifts how we approach them by focusing on meeting everyone’s needs rather than working from a place of fear.
When you have too much on your plate, ask your manager to help you prioritize tasks or find more resources. Find out which tasks matter most to him that you should start on first, or where she suggests you go to find additional resources in order to get the work done on time.
Just like with improv, practice saying “yes, and” in order to get your needs met. Rather than “complaining” that you have too much work to do, say, “Yes, I want to do this AND can you give me more resources?” or “Yes, let’s do that AND let’s prioritize it over the other project so we can do it feasibly.”
Empower Your Team Members to Speak With You
Just as it can be hard for us to push back on our bosses, it’s uncomfortable for our team members to raise concerns about workload with us. We need our people to be comfortable enough to speak up if they feel like we’re piling too much urgency on them.
As is often the case, the presence of psychological safety will foster a sense of comfort in being vulnerable and asking for help. To cultivate psychological safety, we need to be vulnerable and authentic in our interactions; people trust us both by what we do and who we are. This means we need to respond with empathy, a “how might we” mindset, and willingness to adjust expectations when we hear a team member ask for help.
To minimize overloading your team members from the start, limit how many “urgent” projects or deadlines you give out at a time. If everything is a top priority with high urgency, we’ll end up with confused, burned-out colleagues.
RESET YOUR PACE
It’s helpful to realize that the stress of our work lives isn’t (or shouldn’t be) normal. It’s a byproduct of changing technological times, lack of proper boundaries, and unrealistic expectations that have built up over years. We don’t need to feel the weight of constant urgency. We can learn to slow down. While it’s great to have a little hot sauce fire in our bellies, too much makes us sick. Now is as good a time as any to take stock of our urgency habits and adjust. By creating these limits, we will lead ourselves and our teams towards healthier and more productive lives.
KEEP UP WITH BRANDON
This article was based on episode 141 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.