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Maybe one of these situations (or something similar) has happened to you: The grocery store clerk takes her sweet time to scan each item as she chats with a customer, unaware of the growing line of shoppers at her register. You get stuck behind a car going 5 miles below the speed limit as you’re running late to work. The dentist tells you that, even though your tooth is aching, he can’t fit you into the schedule for another two weeks.
At times like these, the necessity for a sense of urgency is glaringly obvious. For some reason, though, when we talk about workplace productivity, a sense of urgency gets overlooked. In the day-to-day of office life, we can completely fail to see that our team lacks an understanding of what matters and what is most pressing. And unlike the situations I described above, a lack of urgency in the workplace is more than just a nuisance—it can undermine the very thing your organization stands for.
In John Kotter's international bestseller, Leading Change, he outlines an eight-step framework for organizational transformation. The first step? "Establishing a sense of urgency."
Why does a sense of urgency matter? Without it, you’ll never create true change because you’ll just coast along with the way things are.
Establishing a sense of urgency is so crucial to organizational transformation that Kotter wrote an entire follow-up book entitled, of course, A Sense of Urgency. In it, he argues that leaders are responsible for creating a sense of urgency in their organizations. Complacency and a false sense of urgency, Kotter argues, are the enemies of a true sense of urgency.
It’s time to realize that as a manager or leader in your organization, you have the power to foster a strong sense of urgency in your team to help create real change.
But before we go over actionable steps you can take to do that, let’s analyze what a “sense of urgency” means.
Sense of urgency refers to the feeling that a matter is pressing and needs to be completed as soon as possible. People who have a strong sense of urgency realize that time is of the essence and use it efficiently to complete their work quickly.
Having a sense of urgency in the workplace is beneficial because it means you and your team will hit deadlines, satisfy clients and ensure that processes run smoothly without any delays. Ultimately, it will help your organization create positive change in the world.
Our F4S motivation research has identified two traits that govern what we call Action Direction: Goal Oriented and Problem Solving. A goal-oriented person is motivated by setting targets and staying focused on a vision, goal or aspiration. A problem-solving-oriented person is motivated by predicting, preventing or solving challenges and difficulties.
Though neither trait is “bad,” and everyone uses a mix of both sometimes, each person has a tendency to lean toward one versus the other.
Recent research by Canva and F4S has found that, because of the COVID-19 crisis, American workers have shifted more toward Problem Solving. Sixty percent of those we surveyed said they were more motivated by identifying and solving problems than by setting individual goals. This makes sense, given that we all have had to adapt to multiple crises over the past year and may be more primed to “put out fires” than to strive toward our aspirations.
This means that now, more than ever, workers have a strong drive to avoid problems, so a sense of urgency can help them get their work done more effectively than having them focus on a goal.
There’s a caveat to this, though: Creating a sense of urgency should not come at the expense of workers’ health. Too much urgency can create undue stress and lead to burnout.
In an interview with Emerald Publishing, Kotter explained, “A false sense of urgency is a terrible, terrible problem. A false sense of urgency is an anxiety driven, frenetic behaviour of running around in circles, your tongue dragging after a certain point, and becoming stressed out. You have meeting after meeting, taskforce after taskforce, but it’s activity not productivity. It is so insidious and dangerous.”
Next, let’s look at how you can create a sense of urgency on your team without stressing them out.
As a manager or leader, you have the power and responsibility to set the tone for your team. If you want to create a sense of urgency without the stress, it falls on you to model the appropriate behavior to your team.
When something’s urgent, it can be tempting to run around rushing your team to get things done—but that’s not the healthy place to start. Sure, it might stress them out enough to get them to work on things quickly, but long term, it could lead to mistrust and burnout.
You need to begin with the basics: establishing shared values. True urgency won’t happen until everyone buys into the same values and everyone finds them important.
Related to values, it’s important to define purpose. A team under a tight deadline will act with urgency, but a team under a tight deadline and with a shared purpose will act with conviction. The former will stress people out, the latter will energize them with meaning.
Remember, model the behavior that you want your team to exhibit. This means choosing your battles wisely. If you treat every task as though it’s urgent, your team will realize that nothing is truly urgent.
For example, if you respond instantly to every email and Slack message (things that are not truly urgent), you send the message to your team that you don’t even know what matters most.
One way to show a sense of urgency is to take the initiative on critical matters—even if it is not in your job description. For example, if you tell your team that improving customer service response times is an urgent matter, then the next time a customer call comes in and none of the support reps are available, answer it yourself.
These small acts signal to your team that A) what you say is urgent is truly urgent and B) you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and do what’s necessary to reach team goals (and guess what? They’ll respect you all the more for it).
Acting with urgency doesn’t mean shouting, threatening or panicking. Your team will be looking to you to stay calm even when the most pressing matters arise. Think of ways you can show a sense of urgency while also maintaining a sense of calm, and be sure to take into account that some people are Affective Communicators who read a lot into emotions, tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures, while others are Neutral communicators who focus on your word choice.
So, for example, let’s say your team is coming up on an important deadline, and you’re not seeing the progress you’d hoped for. Use your words to reiterate what’s at stake with this project and why it must be completed on time, and use a firm, measured tone of voice to indicate both urgency and calm.
Studies have found that tighter deadlines lead to higher completion rates, shorter completion times and less money spent on the task at hand.
In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Meng Zhu and colleagues found that longer deadlines can make workers feel like the task is more difficult than it actually is and might lead them to commit more resources than necessary to complete it. It may also make a worker more likely to procrastinate and quit.
A simple solution? Break it up into mini-deadlines. Instead of saying a presentation is due four weeks from now, you could ask to see an outline one week from now, a first draft of the slideshow in two weeks, a dry run of the full presentation in three weeks and then the finalized presentation in four weeks.
If you set deadlines for your team members but don’t honor them yourself, you send the message that your deadlines are arbitrary, meaningless. And nothing demotivates a person than realizing they ascribed to something that had no meaning.
If you tell someone that you must have their report by Tuesday, and they turn it in on time, but you don’t even look at it until Friday, you’ve basically told them that the deadline was meaningless. And the next time you tell them something is urgent, they’re far less likely to believe you and turn it in on time.
Create a sense of urgency by scheduling tasks and projects as soon as they’re confirmed. Instead of saying, “Let’s meet in a couple weeks to discuss progress,” be more specific. Pull up your calendar and say something like, “Does April 21 at 11:30 a.m. work for you to meet again and discuss progress on this?”
This shows that you’re taking the initiative and that you value this project and its progress.
If you have a project deadline in four months, don’t wait until month three to do a status meeting. Meet incrementally, such as every two weeks, to help keep momentum going. This also minimizes the risk that your team will wait until the last minute to do everything.
Your team will be more motivated to act with urgency if they can see the benefits of doing so. Whenever you can, quantify and visualize how their sense of urgency helps them and the rest of your organization.
Here’s an interesting experiment that highlights the importance of seeing results: Organizational psychologist Adam Grant invited a recipient of a scholarship to speak to workers at a fundraising call center. The student told the callers how their work had funded his scholarship and how it had positively affected his life.
One month later, these same callers averaged 142% more time on the phone and raised 171% more money. The callers in the control groups, who didn't receive a visit from the student, didn't have any meaningful change in performance.
When people know their work matters, when they can see the results of it, they’ll act with more urgency.
On the flip side, your team is less likely to move slowly if they see the negative consequences of doing so. Can you show them how much money the company loses when they miss a deadline? Can you show them how much longer someone else has to stay at work when a teammate forgets to complete a task? Quantify what a lack of urgency costs. Show them how it hurts the team and the company.
To make sure your team doesn’t burn out trying to meet these urgent deadlines, celebrate the small victories. On their way to shipping version 3.0 of your mobile app, praise them every time they fix a bug or code a new feature. On their journey to $1 million in annual sales, reward them every time they make a $2,000 sale.
A coach can help you boost your team’s sense of urgency through regular meetings, accountability, asking pointed questions and evaluating your progress. It’s tough to institute change within a team’s culture when you’re so close to it. Hiring a third party to assess your team and facilitate growth can provide valuable insights you wouldn’t get on your own.
While a sense of urgency may not be something we think about often—we certainly notice it when it’s absent. Organizations that are complacent, content with the status quo, will never change the world. It takes a sense of urgency to light a fire within employees to act now and carry out the company’s mission and vision.