The Cult of Busyness is a phenomenon that exists within many of our organisations.
Anyone can join.
All you need to do is tell everyone within earshot that you’re “so busy”.
Or if you don’t like that one, maybe you could say “I was working until 10pm last night finishing that piece of work”.
Or, if you have a flair for the dramatic, you could use a more poetic phrase: “My feet have hardly touched the ground”.
It’s time to dismantle the Cult of Busyness and stop the madness. Because in many cases, it’s not real.
It’s all for show.
What is the Cult of Busyness?
The Cult of Busyness is the name I use to describe a culture of trying to appear busy at work.
In my experience, the Cult of Busyness is quite common. These are the signs I look for:
- People making an effort to appear busy. They may or may not actually be busy – the point is, they make sure that everyone thinks they are.
- People asking if others are busy. A common greeting I hear is “Busy?” The answer everyone wants to hear is “Oh yeah, so busy”.
- Being busy = being valuable. When people believe that if you’re always busy, you’re more “in-demand” and more valuable.
- Work is hoarded. What’s worse than being busy? Having nothing to do. People hold onto work for themselves, and collaboration suffers.
- Presenteeism is common. People stay at work for longer than they need to, because they don’t want to be seen as lazy or unimportant.
- People who work slowly. Imagine you had one important thing to do today. It would only take you two hours, but you spend more time, so it fills up your day. Because being busy is valuable.
If you’ve seen these signs in your workplace, you’re not alone!
Learn More: Too Busy at Work? Try These 5 Things.
Why Appearing Busy Is Hurting People and Organisations
Appearing busy might not seem like such a big deal on the surface.
However, I feel that the Cult of Busyness can have dramatic consequences on our workplaces and the people within them.
It’s important to point out that when someone makes an effort to appear busy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t. They could in fact be extremely busy.
The problem is that these people are making an effort to show they are busy, because busy equals important.
When Busy = Important, Thoughtful Leadership Suffers
Leaders who plan and take time out to think strategically don’t seem very busy. In some places I’ve worked, I’ve seen people criticise leaders who spend lots of time with their teams, like it’s a bad thing.
Planning, thinking strategically, taking breaks, understanding your priorities, talking to your people.
These are all very good things to do.
But these are not frantic, flustered activities. They are planned, thoughtful and considered.
So when busyness is seen as important, these activities may be frowned upon.
When people are too busy justifying their existence than doing real, valuable and useful work (and ditching the stuff that doesn’t really matter), you have a problem.
Appearing Busy Causes Stress
When people are concerned with looking busy, it spreads like wildfire. Others feel compelled to follow suit when it becomes part of the culture.
Leaders who are members of the Cult of Busyness make the situation even worse.
They are powerful role models that make employees believe that being busy is important and valuable.
This adds to the pressure of the workplace.
If you are busy, you feel compelled to show others that you are. If you don’t make a show, nobody knows you’re busy, so it doesn’t count.
And for those that aren’t really busy, there can be a feeling that they aren’t as valuable as the other busy people around them. Even if their workload happens to be just right for them to handle.
This additional pressure to appear busy can cause people to stop taking breaks, work longer than they need to, or make up things to do that aren’t really valuable.
Learn More: Do You Have An Effective Team, or Are You Focused on Busywork?
In the Cult of Busyness, Real Value Is Hidden
When people are trying to appear busy, they seem like they have enough work to do. If you don’t know any better, you’d think their workload is probably on the higher end of the scale.
But what if that seemingly busy person is actually not very busy? They could actually be doing something more valuable, if anybody knew this was the case.
However, it’s rare for team members to admit they aren’t busy, because they don’t want to be seen as unimportant or lazy.
We also have those people that are doing low-value tasks in order to remain busy. They could be repurposed to do something else, far more valuable.
This is how the real value of the work we are doing becomes hidden amongst the fake busyness. And I would bet that it’s costing organisations a lot of money.
Learn More: Are You Too Busy to Lead Effectively?
How Leaders Can Kill the Cult of Busyness
It’s not easy to go against the grain. Especially in an organisation that thrives on appearing busy.
However, leaders have a key role to play in setting the right behaviour and being a role model for their teams.
Let’s look at some of the ways that leaders can have their teams being valuable, rather than trying to appear like they are.
1. Cut Out the Glamorous Language of Busyness
The first part of role-modelling a more effective environment for your team is to cut out the busy language. Here are some suggestions:
- Stop telling people you are busy. You might be, but you don’t need to make a show of it.
- Avoid making casual comments that send the wrong message. Calling people a “part-timer” if they leave work on time, or “it must be nice to be able to have a break” are some examples. Sometimes we do this as a joke, but it can still reinforce a negative culture.
- Don’t say “busy” when people ask you how you are. This just strengthens the perception that this is what you value. Your people will take this as guidance.
- Cut out the victim statements. “I’ve been in back to back meetings all day”. So whose fault is that? You decide what to do with your time, and it’s up to you to protect it.
The language you use can send a strong message. Be sure to send the right one.
2. Endorse Flexible Working
Flexible working is here to stay, whether it’s remote work or simply allowing flexibility in the work day for people to start and finish at different times.
Flexible working helps to destroy the Cult of Busyness, because it allows people to better match their life outside of work with the needs of the job.
This means that they can come to work more motivated, less stressed and still feel like a valued contributor.
In the Cult of Busyness, many old school leaders see flexible work as a problem.
I once worked for a manager who wanted me to be in at the same time every day, even though it made no difference to my work, or the people I was working with.
This made me feel as if my flexibility and freedom was being taken away. Beware of the 9 to 5 attitude, because it can promote a culture where people watch the clock until they can leave.
Another old-school perception is that if you get to work early, you’re a go-getter. If you start work later, you’re not.
All of these outdated perceptions increase stress, because people feel they need to be seen to be working at the “right time”.
Of course, not all professions have the benefit of remote or flexible working, but many certainly do!
3. Have Excellent Oversight of the Workload of Your Team
In the Cult of Busyness, people may pretend to be busy when they are not. This doesn’t mean they are lazy. Perhaps they feel the pressure of the culture, and they want to feel valuable.
A good way to combat this is to understand the workload of your team. You need to be able to monitor progress, see how much work people have to do and what’s coming up next.
Oversight comes from a few different sources:
- Systems and processes. When you manage tasks, requests and projects in a system that everyone can see, you can more easily track progress and workloads.
- Conversations. Keeping in touch with your team is valuable to see how they’re coping. Do they have too much work? Not enough? Keeping the conversation going will help you stay in the know. Don’t forget to talk to other colleagues, too. They might be giving your team work to do!
- Being perceptive. Looking out for signs of stress or boredom can be a good way to tell that you need to make a workload adjustment.
Oversight is a great tool, but you also need to be aware of your people’s need for flexibility and autonomy. Nobody likes to be micromanaged, so be sure to find the right level that works for you and your team.
Not Everyone Will Be Perfectly Busy All the Time
An important aspect to note here is that nobody ever has the perfect workload at all times.
Some times will be busier than others. Sometimes, you might even have a lull where a team member doesn’t have too much to do.
Whoever came up with the 40 hour work week is not a genius. It is impossible for all roles in the world to be perfectly allocated for the entire time they are at work.
This is another reason why flexibility is so important. I don’t feel it’s a huge problem for a team member to leave work a little early when they’ve finished their important tasks.
If this happens continuously then the workload and role may need some adjustment. Otherwise, this sort of flexibility can be a nice perk in a workplace.
Learn More: How Letting Go Will Help You Take Control.
4. Understand What Motivates Your People
It’s always a good idea to understand what motivates your people, because it helps you to create conditions and allocate work that they enjoy.
Understanding their ideal career or life trajectory is also useful, because you can try to provide opportunities that will help to get them where they want to go.
Let’s say that your people aren’t quite as busy as they could be. One strategy to fix this is to create a development opportunity for them (a mini-project, for example) that both fulfils their motivations and helps the team.
Giving someone extra boring work just to fill their day is no fun for anyone. But giving someone an opportunity that they enjoy can make a huge difference.
Learn More: Risk & Reward: How to Provide Development Opportunities For Your Team.
5. Destroy the Cult of Busy By Role Modelling the Right Behaviours
We all know that “talk is cheap” and “actions speak louder than words”.
So it’s important to be walking the talk. That is, doing things that reinforce a culture of value and effectiveness, rather than busyness.
This means looking out for your own workload, ensuring you aren’t overwhelmed and burning the midnight oil.
It means understanding your priorities, and pushing back on work that is not important right now.
Or taking time to plan, prepare and think strategically, to avoid constant fire-fighting and reactive behaviour.
It also means cutting out pointless meetings, or delegating them to someone else.
You might also try taking breaks, to set the example for your team.
And lastly, how about being proud of showing behaviour that safeguards your wellbeing?
Smart leaders know that being on the road to burnout helps nobody. So let’s role model some better behaviours instead.
Learn More: Thoughtful Leader Podcast #76: Don’t Wait for a Crisis: Why Leaders Should Focus On Workplace Wellbeing.
Persistence and Consistency Will Kill the Cult of Busyness
Society is gradually shifting to understand the importance of mental health and wellbeing.
It is no longer seen as “soft and fluffy”, but an important part of keeping business running sustainably, and keeping people happy and healthy.
The Cult of Busyness will be hard to tear down. People around you will be members of this insidious cult.
We need leaders like you to fight the good fight, and dismantle it.
The Cult of Busyness is helping nobody and serving no-one.
A wonderful article – nothing critical to add, I just wanted to share my appreciation
Thank you Tony for the comment,