‘Busy’ is a notion we ought to discourage, rather than elevating it as though it is worthy.
My pen was poised to continue that gristly piece I posted recently about ‘how to have that difficult conversation’ but since publishing, it’s become clear that there’s a more important conversation that needs to muscle its way to the front.
Before I continue with the promised topic, I’d like to tackle what seems to be the modern malaise of ‘busy and overwhelmed’ that has been leaching its way into life and work for so long. Frankly, rather than being a sign of success or some kind of badge of honour, I feel ‘being busy’ is increasingly relied on as an excuse to avoid more important responsibilities.
So, you’re a manager and a subject matter expert in your organisation, diligently handling deadlines, important tasks and dealing with the inevitable interruptions that arise. At one level, it feels good to be at the pointy end of making things happen, however you can be easily led astray when tempted by the seductive flurry of activity that comes with exercising your technical expertise and hitting targets.
If you have surrendered to this new normal, I encourage you to re-think busy and the implications of overwhelm.
If prioritising is abandoned, ‘overwhelm’ creeps in
Being overwhelmed feels like our future is coming at us at a rate of knots and a raft of conflicting timeframes and deadlines become a relentless reality. It is indeed about time. It’s about time to consider what has happened to the meaning of ‘priority’. According to the Oxford Dictionary priority is described as: the fact or condition of being regarded or treated as more important than others. If in your world all tasks have become equally important, then change is needed.
‘Busy’ has always been a ‘thing’ in the workplace and has increasingly become justification for arriving late, not reading emails in full (that one includes me!), cancelling the one-on-one 30 minutes before it is due, failing to check in with the team, or dealing with a people problem.
Does ‘busy’ go with the territory of leadership? Resoundingly, YES! But let’s not allow it to become a definition of achievement or status. In my experience in most cases, busy is a competency and responsibility issue.
Being busy is not only a weak excuse for failing to lead but an abdication of responsibility as a leader.
Think about it like this. Others may see your ‘busyness’ as ‘right now is not a good time’. If your direct reports feel this way, they may feel at best a low priority or at worst ignored. To avoid confidence and trust becoming worn and then apathy setting in, acknowledge that doing more with less is part of the territory.
A leader at an engineering firm we work with in Sydney was tasked with cultivating customer retention and improving response times and efficiencies within projects. The competency needed most (but in the shortest supply) was assessing how direct reports were preparing to improve and move from the current approach toward a more efficient and agile path. The leader set a goal to meet individually with the team. However, it became apparent that, ‘catching up’ for one-on-ones was another time-consuming task which offered little return.
The issue here was misplaced focus from the leader; it is not about the meeting; it is about what leaders do in the meeting that counts. Often a leader will ask ‘where are you up to, how is it going?’ and proceed with offering their advice and direction. This is a missed opportunity and delays uncovering opportunity, capability and gaps.
ONE-ON-ONES NEED THOUGHTFUL ATTENTION
One-on-ones is a task, not a skill. Shifting the focus from update and advice to seeing it as an opportunity to coach is a better approach. It is not a one size fits all.
Busy leaders are unlikely to have the mental space or energy for this kind of one-on-one because for many they are harried, rushed, pensive, ambiguous, and/or simply ‘missing in action’. We see this first-hand; leaders are so busy doing stuff, that some have lost sight of their role to lead. Sound familiar?
We have 3 steps for the busy leader to contemplate:
1. CONSIDER THE COMPETENCY GAP RATHER THAN THE TASK – be a coach -v- set up a meeting
Back to our example of the engineering leader, the issue uncovered wasn’t the lack of time for the one-on-one, rather it was their insistent pattern of leading by giving directions or at best, advising a course of action. With that, a new intention and commitment was set to improving their competence around ‘finding and probing’. This has started to close the space between assumption and uncertainty and has encouraged two-way dialogue with focussed action.
2. BREAK IT DOWN INTO SMALLER BITS (HABITS) – increase repertoire of coaching and accountability questions
Although drawing on tools learned in leadership programs is useful, the trap for the enthusiastic leader is reaching for too many new tools, tips or skills at once. Think priority (according to the Oxford Dictionary). What one thing could you start or stop doing that is most important in this context? Ideally, work on just two competencies for 30 days and make it a new habit. The engineering leader focussed on better quality probing questions that led to discovery and accountability.
3. MAKE IT A HABIT – remind yourself, invite a buddy to keep you on track
Our brain likes to conserve energy and will reliably and swiftly call on the deep neural pathways within the basal ganglia – a group of structures associated with learning. So unlearning is just as important as learning.
The great thing about the basal ganglia it has amazing neuroplasticity and new habits can be formed, as long as the right conditions are provided – including repetition. If, and only if we perform the new action regularly, this will fire neurons that will inevitably deeply rewire our brain to form new habits. Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks!
It’s time to ask ‘what role do I play in being busy?’
It’s time to master a couple of competencies at a time as this will cast a bigger shadow than offering advice again and again.
It’s time to uncover the finer distinctions of what it takes to lead ourselves and others to get more from the time and the people we have.