False Urgency Stirs Up Activity but Not Productivity


There is a big difference between productivity and activity.

I frequently read a book to my kids when they were young: If You Give A Mouse A Cookie by Laura Numeroff. We’d laugh and cringe at the chain of events set off if you innocently offered a cookie to a mouse.

In a flurry of activity, the young boy does one thing after another for the mouse, ultimately making a huge mess, needing lots of extra supplies, and eventually getting back to where he started: eating a cookie and needing a sip of milk to go with it. Next, the mouse sends the boy on a series of actions, which he does with urgency, but he never gets past the first task.

Similarly, a business can feel like a spinning wheel of much activity but very little productivity, especially amid the constancy of change.

Two prominent challenges

For leadership to guide a thriving company, it must overcome a few significant challenges. One is complacency. Complacency is a sleepy quality whose origins come from past success, a feeling of self-satisfaction with the status quo, and the routine of maintaining systems. Complacency is an inward-looking behavior that lacks vision beyond what is currently working, and complacency quietly erodes the ability of a company to expand, explore, and grow.

Another challenge to leading through change is false urgency. Unlike complacency, false urgency is a swirling whirl of activity. It’s filled with frenetic, frantic energy and action, often deceptively displaying highly engaged employees bustling to get things done, but false urgency is built on a platform of anxiety, fear, and anger.

False Urgency Definition

False urgency is a condition very different from complacency. While complacency has a sleepy quality, false urgency is filled with energy. While complacency is built on the feeling that the status quo is acceptable, false urgency is built on a platform of anxiety, fear, and anger.

Anxiety and fear drive behavior that can be highly energetic, so leaders mistake false urgency for true urgency. But the energy from anxiety and fear can create activity, not productivity, and sometimes hazardous activity. For example, with anger at bosses or the marketing department, people spend time racing around, creating battles that get the company nowhere.

False Urgency is a product of failures or some form of intense pressure. Falsely urgent people think that all is not well. That things are a mess. That upper management is applying ridiculous pressure on them to succeed.

As a result, they feel angry, anxious, frustrated, tired, and overwhelmed and behaved in ways easily mistaken for real urgency – which is very active. But much more activity than productivity; frenetic, mindless running around to protect themselves or attack others.

Anxiety and fear are effective at creating action. But the wrong kind of action. Over time anxiety and fear cost a company.

Anger is a byproduct of fear and anxiety. When fear-motivated anger is targeted towards management, coworkers, or some department, the wrong type of energy is lobbied against itself. Ultimately slowing down productivity and creating an unhappy environment.

Who can act with false urgency

False urgency is no respecter of people or titles. Who can act with false urgency? You, me, our bosses, anyone! We are all susceptible. A logical response can be false urgency when a company experiences failure or stress. A reaction of hurried activity can pacify and trick people into thinking they’re making up for the failure.

An employee’s mindset reacting to pressure is “things are not well. Things are a mess. I need to do more.” This mindset is logical but does nothing to break out of the cycle false urgency creates. Instead, upper management continues to exert incredible pressure to make up for a recent failure. As a result, upper management can feel and react out of the same anxiety the employees think.

Creating “stop” attitudes

It’s easy to see how false urgency creates a “stop” attitude in the hearts and minds of people. Frenetic energy creates a culture with a mindset that slows down a company. “We’ve never done this before.” “I’m exhausted!” Or “I don’t trust anyone to get this done but me” become common refrains.

Small vision and self-focus add to the false urgency cycle. Employees can begin to turn against each other to prove their competence and ability adding to the anxiety and disgruntled feelings. Unhappy, fighting employees is not the way of the future. But a lot of activity in the wrong direction is inappropriate activity.

False urgency makes employees feel like they’re in survival mode, swamped and exhausted, but throwing all their energy against a project, system, or workaround that perpetuates the falsely urgent cycle.

Eventually, the chain of events from giving a mouse a cookie mimics employees’ frenetic actives to stay busy. But, unfortunately, instead of great vision and collaborative effort, one falsely energetic activity leads to another but doesn’t ultimately move the ship towards a more visionary, productive, truly urgent port.

Breaking the cycle

Breaking the falsely urgent cycle is vital to the success of a company. Happier, motivated employees with a mission and clear vision, utilizing their strengths and abilities to accomplish it, eliminate the anxiety-driven actions of false urgency. Breaking this cycle doesn’t happen overnight or with a flip of a switch. It takes time to create, along with a hefty dose of leadership.

As a change leadership speaker and facilitator, I have the privilege to come alongside leaders, teams, and organizations to help them break the unhealthy cycles that change can create. I work with leaders and teams and address entire companies assisting organizations to become genuinely productive instead of just busy. If you’re interested in knowing more, reach out to me today!