UK: The "Too Busy" Mindset And its Impact On Leadership

Almost 60 years ago, Churchill, as Britain's Prime Minister, was so heartened by the accelerating advances in technology that he envisioned productivity improvements that would herald an age of leisure. "We will be able to give the working man what he's never had," he said. "Four days' work and then three days' fun."

The 21st century world of work does not suggest that the Age of Leisure is about to arrive. Even the two-day weekend is under threat, as research suggests that we routinely check our emails on days that we are not at work.

Technological advance at work has been a double-edged sword. While facilitating countless time-saving innovations, it often feels as if it is controlling us (why else do we talk of BlackBerry "addiction"?) and we are working harder than ever.

Activity as an indicator of status

Offices were once very clearly stratified places with obvious indicators of hierarchy – corner offices, executive wash-rooms, private secretaries and so on. Technology has supported the flattening of hierarchies and has democratised the office so that even CEOs often keep their own diaries. But we now risk using activity as an indicator of status: how busy we are is a signal of how important we are.

If we are asked whether or not we are busy, there is a stigma attached to saying anything other than "Yes, it's crazy right now." We have so many devices through which people can get hold of us that we feel awkward and even unimportant if no one is calling or emailing. Perhaps this is why trains and airport lounges are full of executives engaged in frenetic calling and messaging.

Compulsive message checking

Email is a big part of our "too busy" mindset, particularly with the penetration of BlackBerry and other smartphones. We fall readily into the habit of compulsive message checking and feel anxiety when not able to see the latest email as it comes in. Why else would BMW and Research in Motion collaborate on a service that allows you to sync your BlackBerry with your car?

What is the impact of the "too busy" mindset on leadership? What signals does it send to our people if we constantly check for messages, to the point of doing so even when we are in meetings with people?

Leadership capabilities under threat

Work by business psychologists on what range of capabilities contribute to great leadership suggests a dozen or so core components. The work of Manfred Kets de Vries on the Global Leadership Inventory at INSEAD includes a number of attributes that require listening and engagement, along with a measured and sustainable work ethic.

Among the GLI attributes are: work-life balance, resilience to stress, emotional intelligence, envisioning, team-building, empowering, and rewarding and giving feedback. All of these are threatened by the "too busy" mindset, in which our constant frenetic style of working means that we do not make time for the traditional virtues of leadership such as communication, coaching and delegation.

Worrying behavioural changes

More worrying still is the change in behaviour evident among leaders afflicted with the "too busy" mindset. This mindset is, after all, an indicator of stress and of a brain in which the "fight or flight" mechanism has taken hold. The parts of the brain that are bypassed are those responsible for deep thinking and also those that give us our sense of decency.

Thus, the "too busy" manager may have a vague sense that it is rude to look at emails while being presented to by someone in his team, but goes ahead anyway. The same behaviours are evident at home also, hence the Wall Street Journal coining the lamentable expression "BlackBerry Orphans".

Challenging the belief system

Being "too busy" is a state of mind. It can be fixed, but it needs a complete change in the individual and organisation about what constitutes great leadership. For some, this is an unsettling challenge to a longstanding belief system. However, making the required changes will pay dividends both at work and at home.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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