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Leadership Lab

Please, spare a moment in your busy, busy day to read this Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

I am busy.

So busy I barely have time to tell you how busy I am. I only slept four hours last night because I am so busy and have so much going on that it would literally be impossible for me to sleep four-and-a-half hours. If I did, my day would fall apart.

I am so busy, I do not have time to write this column. But I must. Just one more thing to strike from my list of things that NEED to get done today. When the delightful and well-intentioned media co-ordinator came to me to write a column I, of course, had to tell her how busy I was and that I would try to fit it in but also letting her know that I was really, really busy. Catholic grandmothers wish they could emulate the guilt tactics of the busy.

Sound familiar? Annoyed by the above soliloquy? I live in a world where people are always telling me how busy they are. I am guilty of it as well –so no judgment – I just want us all to stop having this conversation.

Why are we having this conversation in the first place? According to this study, 90 per cent of workers are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”. In addition, procrastination is an almost universal dysfunction that limits our productivity and well-being. Given these facts, how is everyone so busy if we are procrastinating and not engaged at work? Are we picking up slack for lazy, unproductive workers? That could explain some of what is going on, however, I think there is something more insidious at play.

Why do we say we are busy?

For one, there are organizational justice issues going on where many workers are feeling guilty, disrespected and undervalued. As the economy spirals downward, I believe we will be hearing more about how busy people are. Certainly, work levels for those left behind increase during layoffs.

Survivor guilt

When people talk about how busy they are, they are often trying to send a signal to their managers that they are a necessary component of the organization. Most managers are not able to directly observe their team’s daily performance, so the strategy becomes talking about how busy you are rather than being objectively busy. Busy employees who do not brag about how busy they are become dispensable. How is the manager supposed to know employees are busy if they do not constantly hear about how busy they are?

In this situation, Survivor’s guilt is at play. Particularly in an economic downturn when employees know there is the potential for layoffs, the response is to increase work load but increase even more, their signalling about how hard they are working.

Work ethic guilt

Perhaps 90 per cent of workers are disengaged because they do not find their jobs rewarding, challenging or fulfilling. Therefore, we feel guilty about our disengagement and the fact we do not like our jobs. Constantly talking about how busy we are is a way to hide our deep dark secret – and maybe feel a little less guilty – that we are not really working that hard.

Disrespected and undervalued

Telling someone how busy we are can be a signal that we are looking for acknowledgment of our hard work. We also use our busyness as interest on emotional debt. If someone asks me to do something and I respond, “Sure, no problem,” this person does not owe me much and I cannot hold anything over them. However, if I respond, “I am super busy right now, but I will try to fit it in. No promises though,” now the person is indebted to me. I have power over them. One: they know how busy I am; Two: they know that I think they are important enough that I fit them into my busy schedule, and three: they owe me big in the future because I was so busy.

Some Final Words of Wisdom

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” Alice Munro also asked, “Why do we let ourselves be so busy and miss doing things we should have, or would have, liked to do?” We say we are busy with important things but I do not believe that is true. I side with the wisdom of Thoreau and Munro. If we are going to be busy, we better be busy with something truly important – something we should have or would have liked to do. When someone keeps telling you how busy they are, they are telling you they are going through a difficult time and they would like some validation. In response, tell them that you value them, their hard work and that they are doing a great job. We are certainly not too busy to do that.

Justin Weinhardt, PhD (@OrgPsychologist), assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, is an expert in organizational behaviour.

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