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
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
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
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
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