If you’re in a position of influence and your default response to the question, “How are you?” is, “I’m so busy”, you’re likely setting bad habits for your team.
You’ve got back-to-back meetings all morning, a looming deadline and, at some point today, you need to to check in with all your team leaders. This is all on top of trying to fit in some time for homeschooling and thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner.
You are, by definition, eye-wateringly busy.
But the truth is, we all are. Research shows Aussie workers regularly skip lunch breaks; we accrue millions of unpaid overtime each year; and many of us report being too busy to seek support for mental health issues.
Globally, since COVID-19 our meetings have increased by 148 per cent and we’re spending more time in our inbox than ever before as we sift through a 40 billion increase in emails.
Sure, we’re not all CEOs managing a company of thousands and the schedule that comes with that, but we all have our own perception of what being busy feels like.
When leaders go on about how busy they are – through their language or behaviour (i.e. being visibly flustered every time they jump on a video call) – they’re not only modelling unhelpful behaviours, they’re actually inadvertently sending really bad messages to their teams, such as:
- I’m too busy to spare any time for you or your ideas.
- I’m so busy. This interaction is an inconvenience to me.
- The only way to succeed in this business is to be as busy as I am.
- I’m not very good at managing my time.
None of these are inspiring qualities of an effective leader, and yet, we continue to glorify being so busy by rewarding the people who ‘put in the hard yards’ and go ‘above and beyond’ to help the company to achieve its goals.
Let’s be clear, there are times when going the extra mile is necessary and it should be rewarded and acknowledged. However, it becomes an issue when ‘the hard yards’ and ‘above and beyond’ translate to regularly skipping breaks or staying back late.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being busy. In most instances, you can’t avoid it. But you shouldn’t let your busyness define your leadership style.
If you want to skip to the part that you’re most interesting in, this article will cover:
- Why we glorify busyness in the first place.
- The potential negative impacts of a ‘busy culture’.
- Harvard research which suggests a different way to frame your busyness.
Why do we glorify the busy leader?
I’m sure you’ve engaged in the ‘busy’ tennis match before. Someone says how busy they are, then you hit back saying how busy you’ve been too, thus perpetuating the myth that the busier you are, the more important you are.
We throw the term around like confetti, celebrating ourselves for yet another all nighter or for getting through the day without a break. How many times has someone said to you, “I looked up at the clock and couldn’t believe it was already 5pm. I haven’t stopped all day!” This isn’t a badge of honour; it’s deeply concerning. So why do we do it?
It’s because those who role model success are usually portrayed as being extremely busy, says Dr Alice Boyes, former clinical psychologist, and researcher turned author.
Think of Elon Musk, who garners headlines like ‘Tesla Billionaire Elon Musk’s Demanding Daily Routine‘,’Elon Musk pulls 80- to 90-hour work weeks‘ and ‘Elon Musk Says He’s Too Busy to Write a Book’.
Reading one of these articles, you’re hit with more details of his gruelling schedule, which includes lines such as: ‘He’s usually in such a rush that he skips breakfast’, ‘Since he’s so busy, he doesn’t pay much attention to nutrition’ and ‘If Musk does take lunch, he’ll usually wolf it down during an afternoon meeting.’
The message here is loud and clear: you want to be a successful leader? You’re going to have to be busy, busy, busy.
“This ends up being exclusionary because people who don’t want to devote their life to work end up opting out of that industry, or out of work altogether,” says Boyes.
Granted Musk is an extreme example and to achieve his level of success, one would have to radically change their schedule. However, it’s important that commentary like this doesn’t get held up as the only way to be a success.
“There are people who do influential work, but at a low volume or at a slow pace,” says Boyes. “An example is author Susan Cain, who took seven years to write her best selling book, Quiet.”
(Read HRM’s interview with Susan Cain).
“People need time to think and let their mind drift. A lot of important work is done that way. If people don’t have time to let their minds wander, they potentially miss out on a lot of good ideas or having foresight, e.g. thinking about how to prevent a problem that might occur.”
The negative impacts will spread
Busyness is often a facade, says Ian Whitworth, co-founder of event company Scene Change and author of Undisruptable: Timeless business truths for thriving in a world of non-stop change.
“I spend a lot of time at cocktail parties talking to people and it bugs me that every single person goes on about being ‘so busy’. People who are actually busy don’t talk about it because they’re getting on with doing important things and being useful.
“The people who are telling you how busy they are, in my experience, are not the high achievers. They’re [saying it] because it makes them feel important, rather than focusing on their actual achievements.”
“This is a fundamental message for leaders: stop thinking everyone is the same as you because they’re not and they shouldn’t be.” – Ian Whitworth, co-founder, Scene Change and author.
It can also make the leader look insecure, Boyes adds.
“Being busy can come across as trying to make up for low importance with volume,” she says. “People can see through it.
“If people are doing work they really believe in, it doesn’t matter as much if it’s done more slowly or with lower volume/fewer projects,” she says.
Busyness also gives the impression that these leaders don’t manage their time well.
“For example, ultra high-achieving scientists tend to have a lot of outside interests. Having diverse, creative and artistic interests outside work is seen more in people who are high achievers versus people who are moderately successful,” says Boyes.
Whitworth describes busyness as a “shield that stops you from understanding others” and says when leaders are flustered, busy or overwhelmed, it becomes part of their body language.
“It’s really easy to blow people off and not engage with their staff [when they’re so busy]. They might be distracted, but when they’re talking to staff, leaders need to get all of that out of their head and listen to what [the employee] has to say. Employees’ entire impression of [leaders] can be formed in those two minutes of conversation. That could set the tone of their behaviour for the rest of the year.”
By getting stuck in their own vortex of busyness, leaders can also miss out on seeing the value their team has to offer, or hearing ideas or challenges put forward by others.
“If, when someone comes to talk to you, you open by saying how busy you are, they’re not going to tell you their side of the story… therefore you’re missing a golden opportunity to understand them better,” he adds.
Busy cultures also breed burnout and reactionary behaviours, says Boyes.
“It can lead to excessive communication, e.g. where people signal they’re working by responding to emails quickly. Whereas people would be far better off doing more ‘deep work’ with less communication and generally immersing themselves in longer, more ambitious projects, even if there is less to show for it straight away,” says Boyes.
Leaders also need to be careful of assuming everyone can manage the same amount of busyness as they can, Whitworth adds.
“It’s the same idea as thinking that remote work is awesome because you, the leader, thinks everyone has a spare room with a nice curated bookshelf behind you. Whereas for staff living in a sharehouse, having a spare room literally doubles their rent. This is a fundamental message for leaders: stop thinking everyone is the same as you because they’re not and they shouldn’t be.”
Employees might think less of you
Not only are leaders potentially stifling creativity and setting unrealistic expectations with their penchant for the busy lifestyle, they could also be getting staff offside.
When we turn down a social invitation with the excuse of being too busy, our trustworthiness is put into question, according to research from Harvard University. However, the experiment indicates that if you say you don’t have enough money to attend, people are more likely to trust you.
The researchers concluded that the financial excuse indicated a situation that was outside of the individual’s control, whereas because we’re perceived to have more control over our schedules, the argument of not having enough time felt more like a genuine disinterest in attending.
“Being busy can come across as trying to make up for low importance with volume. People can see through it.” – Dr Alice Boyes, researcher, author and former clinical psychologist.
The reality is, leaders often will be too busy. So how should they communicate this without giving the impression they simply don’t care?
In a Harvard Business Review article, one of the researchers, Grant Donnelly, says the financial excuse won’t pertain to every situation, so he suggests saying something like “I don’t have the energy” rather than “I don’t have the time” because people perceive energy levels to be less controllable than time.
You could also try being more honest about your own shortcomings in managing your schedule. So rather than saying “I haven’t got time to attend this meeting” you could say, “I haven’t managed my time well today and I’ve got a deadline looming this afternoon. Can we reschedule for another time?”
But what about trying to rewire our tendency to humblebrag about being in back-to-back meetings or to say, “I’m so busy” when asked how our day is going?
You don’t need a pre-rehearsed line up your sleeve, says Whitworth. As he writes in an article for Smart Company, “LinkedIn success grifters think you need some cheeseball elevator pitch that you’ve practised alone in the bathroom mirror for hours.” Instead, you should “practice open questioning techniques, not elevator pitches, until it becomes part of your personality”.
Be genuinely interested in others. When someone asks how his day is going, Whitworth will respond with, ‘I’m doing great, what about you? What have you been working on?’
“Just take an interest in people. Personally, I find people fascinating so I want to know what’s going on in their mind. People appreciate that; it builds trust.”
It’s a leader’s job to at least give the impression that they have all the time in the world to speak to their people (for all the reasons outlined in the article above). So next time you see a boss running around like a headless chook, you might kindly remind them of this.
Sick of feeling so busy all the time? Want to help your team to slow down and look after their mental health? AHRI’s short course has all the tools to get you started.