If you’ve ever had a pile of work land on your desk and been told to have it done in a day, you’re probably not alone. Many of us have felt under pressure to get things finished, even when they’re not particularly time-sensitive.
Some organisations even create a culture of "false urgency" in a bid to boost productivity — but it can be extremely harmful to employees.
We’re more connected than ever and we work at top speed to stay on top of our ever-growing workloads. A sense of urgency — and a feeling that time is scarce — is a normal part of the working day.
Sometimes, work can be urgent. But often, we assign urgency to tasks without good reason, which leads to us being busy for the sake of it. And before you know it, false urgency can become the norm for a workplace.
But what causes it?
“False urgency stems from a desire to demonstrate dedication and productivity but is often not based on what's actually achievable or needed,” says Ayesha Murray, a career coach.
Finding it difficult to differentiate between the important and the urgent is a universal struggle — and it’s one of the main reasons why false urgency exists. Advancements in technology also mean we’re contactable 24/7 and expect immediate responses, too.
But we also assign urgency to our work because we perceive the busiest people as the most successful. Rather than being a genuine complaint, being busy is a status symbol.
“For many, working at a rate beyond what we would consider healthy gives the impression, both to themselves and others, that they're being productive,” says Murray.
“There may also be a culture of over-delivery and perfectionism that leads to false urgency becoming the norm.”
Even our economic climate can contribute to false urgency. If we’re worried about job security amid redundancies, appearing busy by assigning urgency to tasks may "prove" to our employers that we’re worthy of our roles.
False urgency can be accidental or intentional
Emily Maguire, a career consultant and talent manager at Reflections Career Coaching, says creating a culture of false urgency within an organisation can happen either intentionally or unintentionally.
“Inadvertently, it can be a result of inexperienced management and poor communication. Managers who lack experience may need help with prioritising tasks or communicating effectively with their teams, leading to a false sense of urgency,” she explains.
“Conversely, a culture of false urgency can also be created purposely by managers to motivate their employees to work harder and faster,” adds Maguire.
“They may use tactics such as setting unrealistic deadlines or withholding vital information until the last minute, resulting in a sense of panic and urgency among employees.”
False urgency and burnout
While employers may think urgency boosts productivity, it’s more likely to have the opposite effect. A heightened sense of importance can lead to stress, anxiety and exhaustion, the underlying causes of burnout.
“Unrealistic project deadlines and the expectation of quick communication response times can cause stress and anxiety among employees,” says Maguire.
“Missed deadlines and increased pressure can lead to decreased productivity. When expectations are set too high, and workers cannot keep up, it can lead to demotivation.”
Also, Murray adds, false urgency creates a lack of clarity for employees where expectations are over-inflated, which invariably leads to disappointment.
Ultimately, it becomes even harder to distinguish between the important and the urgent.
“With disappointment comes stress and an added impetus to work even harder to deliver,” Murray explains. “False urgency also makes it hard to distinguish between what actually needs to be done and what is just noise.”
How to get rid of a culture of false urgency
Recognising the signs of false urgency is the first step in eliminating it. The signs can include a chronic state of overwhelm among employees, working overtime to "get things done" and assigning arbitrary deadlines to tasks.
It’s also important to look at why a task has been deemed urgent.
If a client needs something by a reasonable date, that’s fine. If the sense of immediacy is coming from a colleague or a manager — but the deadline isn’t realistic or based on a need to feel competitive — it may be a sign of false urgency.
If you have to push back on a deadline, give clear, concise reasons why.
“It is essential to balance urgency with reasonable expectations to ensure a healthy work environment and to encourage employees to perform at their best,” says Maguire.
“This can be achieved through strong managerial role models, open communication, and prioritising efficiency over speed.”