Adding a Sense of Urgency to Your Work

Last night, the forecast in the Greater NYC area was grim.

Tornado watch. Heavy winds. Punishing rains.

Compounding the problem was that I was planning to dismantle my sukkah (a temporary hut-like structure used for a Jewish holiday) and needed to do before everything got wet. Otherwise, it was be a few days of sunny, dry weather before I could try again.

So, I galvanized my family and we went “all hands on deck”, returning the sukkah to our shed in record time.

Some helped to dismantle the structure. Others cleared place in the shed for the wooden panels and other components. Whatever needed to be done was attended to. And we managed to dodge a wet bullet by getting it done before the rains arrived in earnest.

Research is clear that people respond better – both qualitatively and in terms of completion time – when there is a sense of urgency to their work. While it’s important that leaders not overplay the urgency card (that can dull people’s responsiveness and induce unneeded stress) with their teams, there are many benefits to strategically adding an element of healthy pressure to the workplace.

Here are some “E.A.R.N.E.S.T.” ways to increase a sense of urgency at work:

  • Expectations – The first thing that people need to know is where things stand and what needs to change. Once you get your team clear on where they are and what needs to happen, you can reasonably expect that they will focus their efforts and energy to move things forward.   

  • Awareness – They also should be made aware of why this task is of increased importance, as in what’s going to happen if nothing changes. In my example, it would be that we need to prioritize dismantling the sukkah to ensure that it gets into the shed before the sky opens up and everything gets soaked. Your consequence may relate to losing customers, taking a loss on a faulty product or service, or an opportunity to gain market share.

  • Reflect (through your actions) – When something is more urgent, your actions should reflect it. Your people will pick up on your increased focus, seriousness, etc. and respond in kind. If you’re “on” all of the time or keep a flat, low profile regardless of what’s at stake, then your people will not know that this task should take higher priority.

  • Note (the temperature) – If you sense that folks are a bit too comfortable in how they approach their tasks, do things to adjust people’s working “temperature”. For example, instead of 45 minute weekly sit-down meetings in the usual meeting space, meet briefly first thing each morning while standing in the hallway.

  • Employee (recognition) – Reward small successes by recognizing your team members who set a positive, “urgent” example for others. A simple “thanks” or “way to go!” can go a long way.

  • Stop – Give your team a breather when needed to help them recover from the unexpected increase of time, energy, concentration, etc. that you’ve been demanding of them. Consider something like an extended weekend or early dismissal after meaningful progress has been achieved.

  • Take stock – Pause from time to time to measure what worked and what didn’t. Use this information the next time that you want or need to increase the level of urgency at work.