Breinn Richter, MBA
The Performance of Professionalism - Part Four - Urgency
I sat down today to draft an email to a colleague to remind them to write a recommendation letter for a project we are bidding on. I originally asked for the letter about a week ago, but neglected to provide them with enough details to successfully write it. Of course the application is due in just a few days, and I know how frustrated I get when I'm reminded of something last minute. I started the email with "my urgency is not your emergency" and I laughed when I thought about turning it into a blog post. But discussing a sense of urgency fits very nicely in our series about professionalism.
A constant sense of urgency reflects our cultural habit of disconnecting ourselves from the need to breathe, pause and reflect in our every-day lives. This constant on-the-go, already-behind pace perpetuates power imbalances, and the irony is this "imposed" sense of urgency serves to erase the actual urgency necessary to tackle social injustice.
This urgency, or "hurry sickness" as defined by cardiologists Friedman and Rosenman (1974), manifests as "a continuous struggle and unremitting attempt to accomplish or achieve more and more things or participate in more and more events in less and less time." On an individual level, maintaining a constant sense of urgency increases your body's output of the hormone cortisol, which can cause long-term health problems, such as anxiety, depression, and burnout from the prolonged, chronic stress response. On an organizational level, a constant sense of urgency makes it difficult, if not downright impossible, to be inclusive, encourage democratic and thoughtful decision-making, to plan strategically for the long-term, or to consider possible consequences of organizational choices.
At the intersection of professionalism and White supremacy in organizations, perpetuating a constant sense of urgency:
frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results, for example sacrificing interests of BIPOC people and communities in order to win victories for white people (seen as default or norm community);
reinforces existing power hierarchies that use the sense of urgency to control decision making in the name of expediency;
is reinforced by funding proposals which promise too much work for too little money and by funders who expect too much for too little;
privileges those who process information quickly (or think they do);
sacrifices and erases the potential of other modes of knowing and wisdom that require more time (embodied, intuitive, spiritual);
encourages shame, guilt, and self-righteousness to manipulate decision-making;
reinforces the idea that we are ruled by time, deadlines, and needing to do things in a "timely" way often based on arbitrary schedules that have little to do with the actual realities of how long things take, particularly when those "things" are relationships with others;
connected to objectivity in the sense that we think that our sense of time and/or meeting deadlines is objective because we see or frame time as objective;
reproduces either/or thinking because of the stated need to reach decisions quickly;
makes it harder for us to distinguish what is really urgent from what feels urgent; after a while everything takes on the same sense of urgency, leading to mental, physical, intellectual, and spiritual burnout and exhaustion;
involves unrealistic expectations about how much can get done in any period of time; linked to perfectionism in the urgency that perfectionism creates as we try to make sure something is done perfectly according to our standards.
Connecting urgency to White supremacy is challenging, but White supremacy and racism invite and condition us into toxic thinking and behavior everyday. With a constant sense of urgency, we are called on to hold the fragile contradiction of an underlying immediate need for justice with the day-to-day sense of urgency that too often defines our organizational cultures. White supremacy culture is urgent only in the name of short-term power and profit. And White supremacy culture loves to perpetuate that sense of sense of urgency, particularly in those of us who wish to dismantle it, because it knows that living in that constant state is the perfect recipe for burnout, exhaustion, and abuse of power.
If you find yourself personally or within your organizations teetering on the brink of burnout, develop one, some, or all of the following "antidotes to urgency":
realistic workplans based on the lived experience of the people and organization involved;
leadership who understands that everything takes longer than anyone expects;
a commitment to equity, including a commitment to discuss and plan for what it means to embed equity practices into the workplan;
a commitment to learn from past experience how long things take;
collaborative development of realistic funding proposals with realistic time frames;
clarity ahead of time about how you will make good decisions in an atmosphere of urgency (including clarity about what constitutes a "good" decision);
an understanding that rushing decisions takes more time in the long run because inevitably people who didn’t get a chance to voice their thoughts and feelings will at best resent and at worst undermine a decision where they were left unheard;
developing a personal and collective practice of noticing when urgency arises and taking a pause to deliberate with thoughtfulness and intention about the nature of the urgency and the range of options available to you.
Many of us habitually take on more than what we have the time and bandwidth for, and the worst culprits (looking at myself of course) are the conscientious, hard workers who are often "switched on" all the time. It's estimated 95% of managers suffer from "hurry sickness"(Jolly, 2016). I mean, raise your hand if you've checked your email while your out of office status has been set!?! Our 24/7 state of connectedness makes it damn hard to disconnect and slow down. But it's in that disconnect - the space between - that we often can approach our greatest challenges with more clarity and intention.
If you've enjoyed our blog series "The Performance of Professionalism", please make sure you're following us on social media and visiting the website often! Content for this series has been adapted or cited directly from the work of Tema Okun and her colleagues at Dismantling Racism Works (dRworks). I am very grateful for their collective contributions.
Centre for Community Organizations (COCO). (2019). White supremacy culture in organizations.
Friedman, M., & Rosenman, R. (1974). Type A Behavior and Your Heart. New York: Knopf.
Jolly, R. (2016). What's the Hurry? London Business School.
Okun, T. (2021). White supremacy culture: Still here. Dismantling Racism Works.
Collective Leadership Strategies does not receive financial compensation for the links that are shared on our website. We have made every effort possible to center the voices of Black Brown and Indigenous authors in our references and link to book-selling sites that are Black-owned. In general, we recommend www.thedockbookshop.com for online book purchases over other mass distributors. The Dock is owned by a Black woman and does substantial work in empowering Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.