Operating Under the Influence of Urgency

  • The status quo, dominant culture of our society was not built to and cannot bring about liberation and justice for all people.
  • What we practice with our lives — our habits and actions — often reinforces that status quo culture, even when we don’t mean for it to.
  • Our opportunity is to become more conscious about what we’re practicing and make choices about how to practice in more liberatory, disruptively self-compassionate ways.
  • Creating collective liberation — out in the world, for all people — starts with, and in fact depends on, our own inner liberation.

That is the heart work we’re doing here.

Published: April 1, 2018

Caution: Avoid Operating Heavy Machinery, Leading Teams, and Living Life Under the Influence of a Sense of Urgency

by laura brewer

May I learn all the ways in which I do not really see you. All the ways I rush through you, past you, over you. May I learn to pause in your presence. — Chani Nicholas

I wore my sense of urgency like a blue ribbon for most of my leadership and career. The strong leaders, I thought, were those who valued speed and progress — and had the skills to make that happen. I would rouse my teams with conviction and urgency. I would start and end speeches and meetings and conference calls with an insistent battle cry: “Futures are at stake!” “Schools are at stake!” “High quality public education available to every child is at stake!” I wasn’t lying. It was true: the mission we worked in service to was all-important. I watched my urgency generate impact. My team of 125 people was considered high-performing. New hires in the organization were regularly sent to shadow me, as an example of effective leadership. People who worked with me called me “inspirational.” We had some of the highest results across our national organization. And in retrospect, my heart breaks a little.

Sense of urgency isn’t always a “bad” thing. In fact, sometimes it’s downright necessary. But often, it gets woven into the fabric of our way of being in the world – into our way of leading or how we move around through life. I call that living under the influence of urgency. When it becomes an engrained, or automatic, or assumed, or preferenced, or unscrutinized way of being – whether for an individual, or for a team or organization – I’d like to offer that at that point, odds are how we’re operating isn’t in alignment with our values. And is probably causing harm.

What most breaks my heart when I think about my early leadership is that I was so far removed from my values, and didn’t see it – because I was under the influence of urgency. What I modeled was a false correlation: urgency = results. Without knowing it or intending to, I built an unnecessarily-urgent culture, steeped in either-or (slow or fast; urgent or apathetic; results or failure), short-sighted thinking. A culture that – not in intention, but under the influence – showed through its actions and pace that it valued the mission over the people working in the mission, that it equated worth and impact with productivity, that it prized doing over being, that was too rushed and too busy to value and demand more time for deep, meaningful collaboration and inclusivity. I never meant to model those things and in fact believed the very opposites – but – it was the impact, for which I am responsible. I led how I thought “good” leaders operate: with urgency, with swiftness, to “win.” And, like a fish in a fish bowl, I did not see the complex, structural, and oppressive systems that were at play — in my leadership as an individual, in our organization, and in our society — because I was swimming in them.

The Practice of Urgency

You cannot prove your worth by bylines and busyness. ― Katelyn S. Bolds

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, John Kotter — author of one of the best-selling leadership and business books, A Sense of Urgency — defined urgency this way:

Urgency is a combination of thoughts, feelings, and actual behavior. The thoughts are: there are great opportunities out there, great hazards. The feelings are a gut-level determination that we’re going to do something now, we’re going to do something to win. And the behavior is this hyper-alertness to what’s going on. It’s a sense of coming to work each and every day with a commitment to making something happen that’s on the important issues. It’s a sense you give off to other people that, we’ve got to get going on this because it’s so important…Because I can’t work 100 hours a week and die. That’s not the whole point. You don’t win that way. So it’s this determination and movement that is smart and that wins.

I read this and there are things that resonate. The best leaders I’ve worked for have really pushed hard on clarifying what’s most important, and pushed back against cultures of working 12, 14, 16-hour days. This article is not about proving John Kotter wrong. It’s not about damning and over-simplifying sense of urgency (it’s never as simple as seeing something and calling it bad). It’s about asking us to consider how we relate to urgency. How we use urgency. To check in with ourselves and our values and determine to what extent that urgency is a choice, to what extent we assert it onto those around us, to what extent it connects to the urge for power and control … It’s about naming: while sense of urgency might have benefits and might even work as a strategy to affect change and results, it is also ultimately a byproduct of societal, cultural, and structural values and systems that don’t always value people, and certainly not all people. Values that favor certain archetypes of leadership. Systems that often leave certain people behind. This article is about offering up the possibility that sense of urgency, when practiced unconsciously or left unexamined, can cause massive damage to ourselves, to our teams, and to our loved ones and may sometimes strengthen the very cultural and structural systems and values our work and lives are meant to disrupt.

It is possible to work: hard, efficiently, with purpose, on stuff that matters and is treated as important AND … to leave the urgency at the door. To not assert that onto others, or ourselves.

How We Benefit from Practicing Urgency

Maybe every once in a while we can take a break from doing everything faster and quicker to reflect on who we are and where we are going. ― Joe Plumeri

Urgency (or stress) is a dose of dopamine, adrenaline, and cortisol to your brain. More plainly, it’s some of the same chemical hit you get when you have sex, when you chug coffee, or when you take cocaine. We chemically create pleasure, even if indirectly, by rushing around, multi-tasking, and reinforcing urgency. (We also activate some chemicals that wreak havoc on our long-term health and, like cocaine, foster addiction. But more on that later). So, one of the simplest reasons we practice urgency even when it doesn’t align to our values is because: it feels good. It gets us high, in a way.

When we take chemical responses of pleasure and we add cultural or personal narratives of insecurity to them, like: “I’m lazy if I’m not busy,” “My mission is important therefore I must operate with urgency (and if I don’t, I must not believe the mission is important,” or “my worth is tied to my productivity,” we reinforce the psychological and emotional value of operating with urgency. It doesn’t just feel good chemically, it literally feels good with feelings. We validate our worth when we operate with urgency. We feel productive when we operate with urgency, even if we’re checking off things from a list that aren’t really priorities.

Culturally, we’ve learned to motivate through fear and urgency which seem to me to be fairly synonymous. Between the lines, urgency requires a fear of loss; urgency thrives on scarcity. And because motivating people this way has “worked” (ie: yielded labor and production), we replicate it generation after generation.

Bottom line: urgency feels good, it reinforces our sense of personal value and worth (because we’re doing something!—A lot of somethings!—Therefore we’re worthy of love, right?), and it fuels chemical and cultural addiction.

The Costs of Urgency

For fast acting relief, try slowing down. ― Lily Tomlin

Urgency isn’t a phantom. Sometimes things are urgent. Sometimes situations need emphasis. But sense of urgency as a practice – organizationally, individually, culturally – carries consequences that we’re likely unaware we’re reinforcing when we maintain sense of urgency in our way of being. Some of the costs can include:

  • Reinforcing the idea that our worth is derived from our ability to produce work/labor.
  • Dismissing others – our anxiety can silence their experience, and our rushing around can create an impact of valuing productivity over people.
  • Invalidation of inclusivity – when we are “urgent,” we often make less space for collaboration; we make less space to pause and ask “whose voices are not present in this decision?”; we are often less aware of (or care less about) critical gaps in different perspectives and experiences, and we can justify not demanding an inclusive process and product that demands diversity because we are racing toward an “urgent” finish line.
  • Racial discrimination, unconscious bias, and structural racism – when we make hasty decisions and operate in hasty ways, white people are less likely to guard against unconscious bias, which can fuel racist systems in the work place. People of color are systemically overlooked in hiring decisions and for promotions, receive lower wages than white counterparts, and receive extra scrutiny from managers. These instances of racism are often difficult for white people to see even when they aren’t operating in urgency. When we prioritize urgency, we are extra susceptible to overlooking – even if unconsciously – justice. It’s also true that white people struggle to have direct, transparent conversation about workplace expectations with people of color on their teams or in their line of management. When we’re under the influence of sense of urgency, it acts as a sort of justification (“there’s no time,” “that’s not a priority”) for white people to avoid critical conversations about performance, agreements, and expectations. White people with power in the workplace can also use a sense of urgency as a form of legitimizing overlooking people of color’s criticisms, feedback, requests – and even people of color, themselves. Bottom line, a sense of urgency simply amplifies the frequency and intensity with which people of color are already invalidated, overlooked, negated, and demeaned in the American workplace.
  • Long term health costs that come from sustained mental, emotional, and physical stress. Anxiety; depression; digestive problems; heart problems – to name a few on a very long list. If you lead a team/organization, these aren’t just health consequences of your own practice but can become health consequences for members of your team if your culture sustains urgency as a way of operating.
  • When we sustain a sense of urgency, we can bias short-term results over long-term strategy and impact. Remember, we get those chemical hits under stress, which reinforces our choosing actions and behaviors that lead to more frequent chemical release (i.e. decisions that have short term results).
  • Organizational culture based on transaction – when we emphasize outcomes through a repeated sense of urgency, we sometimes find ourselves doing things just to find something to check off a list. We can lose sight of priority and importance (see below), and unintentionally foster a culture all about what we do. When that happens, relationships, collaboration, innovation, unconventional thinking/learning, and culture/comradery tend to suffer.
  • Struggle to determine priorities – when urgency is a way of being, we weaken both our skill and will to be able to identify the priorities and treat them as such. Everything becomes a code red; everything is a priority. Which means nothing is a priority.
  • An addiction to urgency – the repeated release of those chemicals we discussed earlier causes actual change in the wiring of your brain, which causes change in your habits, behaviors, and responses. “What happens is that sensitization leads the brain to re-circuit itself in response to stress,” says psychologist Michael Meaney, Ph.D., of McGill University. “We know that what we are encountering may be a normal, everyday episode of stress, but the brain is signaling the body to respond inappropriately.” When you send your brain the “urgent” signal over and over, it can no longer determine “urgent: deadline due” versus “urgent: my life is on the line.” As that happens, an addiction to that constant chemical release – which then has you practicing and reinforcing habits and behaviors affiliated with urgency – can build to addiction. This may sound ridiculous, but I can’t tell you how many leaders (hundreds) I’ve worked with over the past 10 years for whom, even when you send them on vacation and take away their computers, can’t relax because the addiction to urgency has become so engrained as a way of being.

From a Sense of Urgency to a Sense of Importance & Other Pivotal Shifts

Sometimes I think there are only two instructions we need to follow…: slow down and let go. ― Oriah Mountain Dreamer

What we really want when we reach for a sense of urgency (other than that hit of dopamine) is to convey importance – to convey meaning. It’s possible to do one without the other. But it requires leadership that’s clear in heart; it requires excellent communication skills (and the willingness to practice those skills); it requires holding tight to inclusivity no matter how pressing the deadline. It may also involve unlearning and even detoxing from an acquired, urgent way of being – at the individual level, and perhaps organizationally too.

Distinctions matter. They aren’t just semantics. And they aren’t simplified binaries (unless you treat them that way). I’d like to offer several subtle but powerful distinctions for those ready to both scrutinize and begin to practice releasing their reliance on sense of urgency – as a way of being, as a strategy for motivation, as a method of leadership.

  • Importance vs. Urgency – help your team (or your life partner) understand why a particular project or outcome is important. When things are important to us, we tend to treat them as if they really matter – and when things really matter, we don’t rush with them. We don’t mince words. We don’t cut corners. We don’t race around. We get all the feedback we can; we take all the (present) time we can. We hold something gently and carefully. But when we’re urgent, we’re often clumsy. We’re rarely present – for the outcome or the people. Embodying importance is a very different way of being than embodying urgency. It pushes you to get crystal clear for yourself and others what your intention is, and why that matters. You might even prefer thinking from and about this distinction: clarity vs. urgency.
  • Go Slow to Go Fast – more often than not, racing and rushing through a project will end up meaning even more time down the road because we have to go back to correct mistakes, to apologize for behaviors that devalued our people, to get additional perspectives… And we lose trust, culture, inclusivity along the way. All of those take immense time to rebuild. When I want my clients to truly treat their priorities as such, I challenge them to slow way, way down – in their pace of voice, in their thinking, in their breathing, and in their work toward the outcome.
  • Energy vs. Time – sometimes when people use urgency as a motivator or way of being, what they’re trying to ask those around them for is a similarly demonstrated commitment of energy to the task at hand. But folks who have absorbed urgency as a way of being often – consciously or unconsciously – have begun to equate time (the amount of time spent on something) with results/commitment. I argue that energy is much more important. I would rather have a team member give 1 potent, powerful, present hour of their energy to a project than 8 unmotivated, transactional, overly-stressed hours to that project.
  • Presence vs. Production – when something is truly important, I want my team’s and my own attention to be incredibly present and mindful in the time we spend on that project. I want to hold the project with complete care and attention. When we’re urgent, we are almost never present because we’re anticipating the future and we’re rushing to get there (which means we aren’t here). And we’re likely experiencing stress (even if it feels “good,” because of that goshdarn dopamine), which means we have less energy and focus to offer the project at hand.
  • Generosity vs. Scarcity – one of the root causes of a sense of urgency is an orientation to scarcity (time is scarce, money is scarce, food, love… there are many iterations). In other words, even if unconscious, we believe there will never be enough. This mentality usually stems from experiences in childhood, and often from growing up in or experiencing poverty – real experiences when there truly wasn’t enough of something. The trouble comes when the mindset gets engrained in our unconscious beliefs, and those beliefs form our way of being and leading. Scarcity ends up functioning almost as an obsession and, because it’s not often conscious, that obsession can get displaced and projected onto things/behaviors – like a sense of urgency (which is often one of the coping mechanisms we learn for how to try to generate more of whatever was lacking). In a sense of urgency, we are constrained – we’re stressed, we’re worried about time, we’re worried about not enoughness, and we’re rushing. It’s not a place of openness; it’s an orientation that involves fear. And fear – in my personal opinion – is ultimately a very dangerous place to try to lead and love from. Coming from a place of “there is always enough” is much harder – it is a major and challenging shift, especially in financially constrained institutions. It doesn’t mean: go be fiscally irresponsible. It simply means to trust in what is true: right now there is enough – time, money, love, knowledge, etc. It may not be as much as we want, but there is enough (and if there truly isn’t, you are likely doing something about that). Generosity breeds openness, connection, collaboration. But it must become a conscious practice to offset the consequences of urgency.

Creating Change: Learning to Let Go of ‘Urgent’

May you live all the days of your life. – Jonathan Swift

The first time I read the quote above, I stopped in my tracks. It shook me. I knew I had been living and leading from a place so steeped in anxiety about the future that I had not really been present for my work, my team, or myself. I was not living the days of my life. I was anxiety-ing, I was rushing, I was do-ing… Because I hadn’t learned yet to value presence over product, and I hadn’t learned the communication skills to convey purpose and importance without asserting my urgency onto others.

Ultimately, this comes down to clear intentions. What do you want to be practicing in your life, leadership, and way of being? When things are truly important, how do you want to convey that to the people in your life? What are the costs you’re paying for urgent and are they the costs you want to pay? What costs are other people paying for your addiction to urgency? Are they in consent about that? Remember – it’s too simple to point to urgency and call it “bad” just because it’s there. Our goal is to get closer, to deeply understand: if it’s there, how are we using it? How are we relating to it? And is all of that in alignment with our values and mission in our lives?

Below I offer a few practices and concrete solutions for how to practice leading, living, being in ways that center purpose, importance, and presence instead of urgency. May they be of benefit, and may you live all the days of your life.

  • Add plenty of buffer time into your schedule and plans – especially into your important (formerly known as urgent) projects.
  • Learn to say no. Learn to value saying no, because saying no to one thing is actually saying yes to something else that really matters. Learn to say yes to your priorities because you’re learning to say no to things you can’t or don’t want to commit to.
  • In teams and organizations, discuss inclusivity explicitly in planning stages for projects. How will inclusivity look during this project? How will we let one another know if one or more of us feels that inclusivity commitments aren’t being upheld?
  • Whether with family members or teams, discuss how you want to collaborate and engage one another under stress. Since prioritization can sometimes lead to stress, how do you want to treat one another – what do you want to hold sacred – in the midst of the stress?
  • If you write in an organizer or create action plans, try organizing your day based on a set of values. For example, right now I’m practicing three values every day: creation; service; connection. When I write my action plan, I take into account the things I need to get done, but they flow from my practice of and commitment to these three values. No matter what, I ensure my day is organized around them.
  • Build in a norm and commitment into your team that you will not move forward on projects unless you have heard from/solicited at least 3 (if not more) alternate viewpoints. Not just 3 different voices – three different views/strategies on how to move forward with a particular task/project. You might also consider a norm and commitment to a number of voices/perspectives, in addition to a set commitment around views.

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