Writing by Peter Hilton

A false sense of urgency

Why the phrase ‘sense of urgency’ ignores actual urgency 2022-12-06 #management

Tim Gouw

Some managers idolise what they call a sense of urgency, and complain about workers who they say lack it. This article investigates this mysterious conceptual framework.

Intransitive urgency

You can’t usually find out what someone means by a sense of urgency by asking them what requires urgent attention, or why. At best, you end up with a team’s imperative to urgently achieve some goal or acquire some knowledge.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People taught us to put first things first, by explaining urgency’s independence from importance. Talking about undirected (intransitive) urgency attempts to reframe what someone else finds important as what you should consider urgent. You counter this when you reply that, a lack of planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine.

Urgency alignment

When you do actually have a specific goal, no-one objects to achieving it sooner rather than later, if possible. The suggestion that a team would otherwise choose a slow approach therefore tends to land badly.

Badly scripted television series illustrate this where a minor character exclaims ‘but we’ve got to find the killer, now!’ This generally follows scenes that established how the whole team has aligned around precisely that objective. In an especially dire script, the minor character follows up with, ‘we’ve got to do something!’ Presumably, their lack of (a sense of) urgency leads the detectives to review the evidence instead of dashing around in fast cars.

We forgive this hysteria from a murder victim’s family members, whose distress we understand. But when a leader does this, it immediately underlines their incompetence, typically as part of a trope in which under-appreciated workers finally gain recognition for exceptional performance. No-one wants to find their job description on TV Tropes.

It’s focus, stupid!

Toxic articles like Sense of Urgency (Why You Need it & How to Get it) talk about urgency when they mean focus. But this article’s key logical fallacy occurs in thinking that the focus you get from the extreme stress of having a gun pointed at your head means that you need someone pointing a gun at you to have focus. As theories of focus go, you probably couldn’t have a more abusive management style.

In this case, the article’s author provides a simpler example of when people tell you who they are you should believe them, when he writes:

What if I could have a sense of urgency without being a lazy piece of shit for weeks on end and then a nervous wreck for 24 hours?

If you work for someone like this, instead of a sense of urgency, you need to recognise the urgency of firing your manager and finding somewhere better to work. And if you think this about yourself, you have a more serious problem.

Delusional urgency

Most of all, a sense of urgency’s indirectness makes it difficult to pin down. In the absence of anything with any actual urgency, we must presumably imagine not urgency itself, but only a lingering sense of it. This resembles the feeling that someone is watching you, also known as paranoia. Perhaps a sense of urgency also results from some kind of delusion.

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