Don't be a slave to the tyranny of 'everything's urgent' culture

  • Changing corporate culture is like steering a boat: It takes subtle shifts over a long arc.

    Changing corporate culture is like steering a boat: It takes subtle shifts over a long arc. Getty Images

Posted8/11/2019 6:09 AM

Q: Sixty days into a new job as a manager, after 20-plus years of leading teams in my field, I am seeing that my workplace operates under the tyranny of the immediate. Meetings have no agendas, and many people operate in a "get people on the phone and do things immediately" manner, even for non-urgent items. My own requests to peers languish unless I ask multiple times. I see things being discussed repeatedly and different directions being given for the same scenarios because it's all seat-of-the-pants.

I feel like I'm standing in a queue while everyone else is mashing up to the bar and waving their cash around. I also feel like a bartender myself, being pulled into "drop everything and discuss this with me now" conversations that could be handled in a standing meeting or via email. A little of that is fine, but this place operates like bedlam. I am used to a more measured and organized approach, with clear documentation and follow-up on agreed-to action items.


I am working to operate more formally with my own direct reports. But how do I work effectively with my peers and especially my boss, who seems like he's running in circles? Is it even possible to change that operating culture?

A: The armchair sociologist in me wants to make a clever observation about how this inefficient busy-ness model can be traced directly to our increased reliance on impulse-rewarding, on-demand technology that lets us find answers, order service and generally function with minimal organization or forethought.

Still, long before smartphones and Google, we had office posters reading, "Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part." So pants-seat pilots are hardly a new phenomenon.

And the ability to pivot one's focus on a dime is valuable in emergency rooms, restaurant kitchens and active combat -- but that's not a sustainable operating model for long-term projects. Over time, it can foster fragmented thinking, flattened priorities and emotional burnout. If everything's urgent, then nothing is.

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Changing corporate culture is like steering a boat: It takes subtle shifts over a long arc. So stay your course and coach your crew on how to identify and triage must-dos and maybe-laters. Learn to respond, and empower your team to respond, in ways that put some of the onus back on the requester:

"Can you please send me an email as a reminder, and copy my team lead?"

"This is bigger than we can resolve right now. Can you schedule a block of time when we can give it our full attention?"

Bonus: Unlike phone chats and hallway encounters, those emails and invitations will help document the patterns and redundancies that need a longer-term strategic solution.

Meanwhile, to pivot back to your analogy, here are some tips for elbowing your own way to the bar: Keep meetings brief and focused, and take the time to boil your requests down to specific action items or a list of choices with pros and cons spelled out. No guarantees, but people are more inclined to respond if they know that your meetings will be painless and purposeful, and granting your requests will take minimal time and effort.

"It's the tyranny of the immediate that makes us poor in spirit, thin in soul, and shallow in thinking." -- David Foster

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