Specifically, there are three common traps that I see nearly all leadership teams falling into today. These traps are industry and regionally agnostic. It doesn’t matter what you do or where you live in the world. I see these traps as pervasive as a virus.
Everything is urgent, all of the time.
From big publicly traded companies to small non-profits, this is a common leadership misstep today. Granted, there may be many parts of the business that are behind, but that is no excuse to make everything urgent. Why is this such a bad thing? Just like our restaurant story, what’s coming out of the leadership kitchen is suddenly all doused in hot sauce. The organization members run hard in an effort to keep up, but ultimately are overwhelmed. In the organizations I encounter, people are all working long hours. When I ask, “why are you working so many hours?” the common response is, “There is just too much that needs to get done right now.” Ultimately, when everything is urgent, all of the time, the result is apathy, lack of full engagement and eventually burnout.
Nothing is prioritized.
The vast majority of leadership teams not only make everything urgent, they also fail to prioritize initiatives. They essentially say, “do all of these things, right now. We are already behind.” This creates unnecessary anxiety in the everyday manager because not only does he not know what to focus on, he is forced to guess and hope that he is guessing right. Of course, his Director doesn’t know what is prioritized because she was given the same marching orders, so she is suffering from the same anxiety. And rather than forcing her leaders to prioritize, she just relays their call of action and forces her organization to do everything now. The result? No real progress in any meaningful way. Here’s a good analogy. Let’s say you had a friend who was in very poor health. If they don’t get their life healthy soon, they won’t be with us much longer. They need to eat healthy, eat less, exercise daily, cut back on watching television, get more sleep, and ultimately lose hundreds of pounds. What if you said, “Tomorrow you are going to eat 50% less than you normally do, eat only healthy options, exercise for 90 minutes with a combination of cardio and weight training and no more Netflix. Oh, and you are going to bed two hours earlier.” What do you think your probability of success might be? Will your friend be able to make all of the changes simultaneously and effortlessly? Doubtful. However, if you said, “Our first step is to get you active. Everything will flow from that. Here’s our plan. Tomorrow, you and I are going for a 30-minute walk.” I think your probability of success just went up.
Leaders allow their own anxiety and panic to affect the organization.
Show me a leadership team at any Fortune 500 company, and I will show you a group of exceptionally anxious and worried individuals. Why? Because not only has the landscape around almost all organizations changed rapidly in recent years (and continues to do so), but also the voices of “stakeholders” are applying unrealistic or misaligned expectations on leadership. Leadership teams are being tasked with innovating their businesses overnight and delivering stellar profits by the end of this quarter, then exceed those results next quarter, etc. Even that simple statement is tremendously flawed. Innovation takes time, investment and patience. Yet, if it is a publicly traded company, analysts and shareholders aren’t interested in patience or waiting for results. They want results tomorrow. Hence, leaders are put into an impossible bind. This impossible bind creates heightened anxiety and worry into their planning and strategy discussions.
Here’s where it becomes problematic. Most leadership teams push all of that anxiety and worry down into the system in the name of “healthy urgency.” In a sense, they are saying “the organization needs to feel what I/we are feeling.” Yes, sort of. The problem is twofold. First, there is a growing body of research studying the contagiousness of emotions in the workplace (if you’d like to learn more, I did a Ted talk on the subject, look it up!). What they find is that, yes, emotions are contagious in the workplace. In addition, not all emotions are equally contagious. Negative emotions are the most contagious in the bunch. In addition, catching an emotion at work is not like catching a yawn. It is more like catching a virus. You get it, keep it, then pass it on to others. Finally, the role of leaders is a critical one in impacting the emotions of an organization. What they feel will trickle down into the organization. While yes, it is good for an organization to have urgency, a pervasive feeling of fear and panic isn’t healthy for anyone. Leaders need to be conscious of the pervasive tone of their organization and conscientious about how the emotional atmosphere is affected by them.
This is an excerpt from The Hot Sauce Principle: How to Live and Lead in a World Where Everything Is Urgent All of the Time by Brandon Smith, available now on Amazon.