Why Busyness Damages Business - IEDP
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Why Busyness Damages Business

Time spent ‘thinking’ is as valuable as time spent ‘doing’


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Why are we all too busy? Wasn’t technology supposed to ease the workers’ burden? Megan Reitz of Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, offers some explanation, reviews the damage, and provides some help:

Ask a colleague how they are, and they will typically throw their hands up in the air and tell you how very BUSY they are.

But are they really busy? Or do they just feel the need to be seen as busy? What impact does this seemingly constant ‘busyness’ have on our productivity and the quality of the conversations we have with each other at work? And how can we halt the tyranny of busyness before it gets out of hand?

What’s behind the busyness?
Some of our busyness is a result of the technological progress which has given us the ability to be on-line and ‘available’ 24/7. In the classroom, when I ask participants on our executive programmes to turn off their phones and put them away, I often notice a palpable look of terror; ‘What, put my phone away? But I’m so busy…’

Technology, however, is just the scapegoat. Our busyness has sprung out of organizational cultures which place the emphasis on being efficient, being productive, getting results fast and creating shareholder value. We have come to equate being busy with being successful, being effective and ultimately with being promotable.

While doing research for my book Dialogue in Organizations: Developing Relational Leadership*, I spoke to a senior leader who had recently been made redundant.  “For quite a long time after I wasn’t working full time I had to kind of apologise for not being busy because that is the norm,” he explained. “If you are not really, really busy… if you’ve actually got time to reply to an email, perhaps something is wrong with you, so you have to kind of put it off for a few days so they don’t think you are strange.”

The domino effect
Of course if our senior leaders are buckling under the pressure to be seen as busy, then it is likely to filter its way down. If your boss is constantly running from meeting to meeting, staying late, emailing at all hours and constantly singing their importance in the light of how much they have on, then you are likely to learn swiftly that you had better do the same.

We put back-to-back meetings in our diaries, which means we are permanently leaving one meeting early and getting to the next late. We script those meetings down to the last minute, with tight, pre-determined agendas which leave no time for diversion or detailed discussion.

But perhaps the most interesting and worrying trend my research has uncovered is the way in which busyness affects the way we relate to each other moment by moment.

Busyness has led us to assess what we do and who we are with along a kind of scale of ‘worthwhile-ness’ When we receive an email from someone asking to meet us, we silently wonder whether the meeting will be ‘worth our while’ or whether we could be spending our time more productively. When we do actually meet that person we run stories through our minds; ‘when is this person going to get to the point?’ ‘what should I be doing to prepare for my next meeting?’ Our presence with the other person is superficial and transactional at best – and they know it.

Halting the tyranny of busyness
Does this matter? Well let me ask you some questions:

Do you think that ‘high quality’ conversations in organizations are fundamental to organizational performance? To creativity and innovation? To ethical decision making? To motivation and fulfilment?

If we are always still partly in the meeting we have just left and partly in the meeting we are about to go to, and if people are getting the subliminal message that frankly, there are better things we could do with our time, then the likelihood we will think well together and come up with creative solutions to our challenges is slight.

So what can we do to halt the tyranny of busyness before it gets out of hand?  Small changes to the way we manage our interactions with others can make a big difference.

Stilling the mind: Make a conscious effort to clear your mind of all the things that are competing for attention. Switching off the internal dialogue which is buzzing around your head will help you be more ‘present’ with what’s happening in the here and now and will lead to improved dialogue with others.

Checking in: In a busy, corporate environment, we have a tendency to rush into a meeting and get straight down to the agenda without spending any time actually talking on a personal level with the people who are in the room.  Connecting with people on a ‘human’ level can, however, make a real difference to the quality of the subsequent conversations. Try starting a meeting with a check-in process to see how people are and what is going on for them before you launch into the business at hand.

Creating the space for dialogue: The highly structured nature of most meetings can get in the way of good quality conversations. We have a tendency to think of dialogue as something which is ‘indulgent’ and incompatible with getting things done. In fact the opposite is true. Slowing down and departing from a rigid agenda can often help you gain a deeper understanding of colleagues perspectives, improve your ability to influence and build better relationships with others.

Being present: How often have you had a conversation with a colleague and given them only half your attention because you’re thinking about the next meeting or worrying about the flood of emails demanding attention in your in-box? Try choosing to be mindfully ‘present’ with the next person that comes into your room. Give them your full attention, listen to what they have to say, be curious and ask questions.  Try to shift your mindset from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ and trust that taking the time to do this, might lead to a more valuable interaction in the end.

Valuing time to think: It can sometimes be difficult for leaders to say they need time to think.  They are expected to be obviously ‘busy’ and don’t feel it’s acceptable to go against the norm and say they need to go for a walk or take time out from a hectic schedule of meetings just to reflect. Set an example to your team by making it clear you regard time spent ‘thinking’ as valuable as time spent ‘doing’.


Two executive programs led by Dr Megan Reitz:

*Dialogue in Organizations: Developing Relational Leadership, Megan Reitz, Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-1-13748-910-4

Hult Ashridge Executive Education helps organizations around the world improve their leadership talent, strategic thinking and organizational culture.

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