How to fix a culture of busyness:
In a culture of busyness, there is a constant state of urgency. The implicit assumption is that high levels of activity equate to high productivity.
Busyness itself becomes a status symbol – something to be admired – which leads to stress, burnout and high employee turnover.
For those who stay, the continuous pressure to appear busy and meet unrealistic expectations is likely to have a negative impact on their wellbeing, reducing individual and team performance.
Why do we admire busyness?
Cultures of busyness are easy to establish and tend to go largely unchallenged. Why? There are a couple of psychological effects at work.
One is effort justification. Effort can bias our perceptions. When we invest significant effort to achieve something, we attach a higher value to it, in order to justify our efforts. So, if we’re pedalling hard to make it through our inbox and stay afloat, it must be worth it, right?
Another is idleness aversion. Many people are afraid of being idle – or being seen to be idle.
Whilst managers feared that people might slack off when working from home in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, the opposite was true.
Our research demonstrated that productivity increased. However, engagement decreased.
Whatever came from ‘more doing’, it wasn’t necessarily achievements that brought positive outcomes or cemented the relationship between individuals and organisations.
Where’s the harm in busyness?
A culture of busyness presents a number of problems which can diminish individual and team effectiveness, leading to poor organisational culture, stress and burnout.
Over time, this spells problems for the company’s bottom line, as ineffective working practices, extended leaves of absence and high employee turnover take their toll.
In this article, we explore seven problems with busyness culture, and how to fix them.
1. Busyness cultures reward activity instead of outputs
John Wooden said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.”
If we focus on rewarding effort without considering end goals, we will end up with a workforce that works longer hours, producing fewer results of value to the organisation.
On the other hand, if we only reward outputs, there is a risk of stifling innovation in favour of productivity.
We need a balanced approach which promotes not only individual activity, but the quality and positive impact of the work for the team and organisation as a whole.
Understanding the Belbin Team Roles present in a team can help with this.
A strong Implementer is likely to focus on efficiency and productivity, emphasising the importance of task above all else. Someone with Plant strengths, on the other hand, needs to be given space to fail (and learn from failed attempts) as part of the creative process.
The Team Role Circle gives an ‘at-a-glance’ view of strengths present within the team, so that leaders can more easily assess how work, engagement and rewards might differ from one person to the next.
2. Busyness and presenteeism often go hand in hand
Attach value to being busy and reward time spent in the chair. Take away trust. The result?
A presentee culture where people equate working long hours to working effectively. Or feel that they need to be seen to be doing so in order to be rewarded or valued.
According to research by instant messenger, Slack, 30% of a UK employee’s average day is spent on performative work that doesn’t contribute to broader objectives and is done purely to appear productive.
In the same study, 37% of UK desk workers said their productivity was measured on visibility in the office or online.
In a hybrid team, this might mean that employees feel the need to be available without breaks or outside working hours. It could mean that they centre communication around justifying and explaining normal absences from the screen, rather than expending energy on their work.
Wherever employees are working, this kind of environment is not sustainable. Over time, stress and the likelihood of burnout increase, while engagement suffers.
Belbin can help to open up conversations around the optimum atmosphere for an individual. The 'Work Environment Section' of the 'Placement Suggestions' page of the Belbin Individual Report gives advice on whether someone needs structure of free rein, planned tasks or general responsibilities.
3. A lack of role clarity hinders effective collaboration
In a culture of busyness, team members are likely to be focused on firefighting and managing their own workload, rather than lifting their heads to consider the bigger picture.
This can lead to a lack of role clarity and overlap in responsibilities, which in turn causes confusion and inefficiency.
The Belbin Team Report is produced by collating Belbin Team Role data for the team as a whole.
The 'Potential Contributions' page offers suggestions as to who might perform each kind of work.
This can give the team a new perspective on the kinds of work they are tackling, and enable them to collaborate according to strengths. With Belbin in mind, team members can call on colleagues with particular strengths when needed, rather than expending considerable effort and energy playing to their lowest roles.
4. When everyone is always busy, communication suffers
Busyness often means that team members work in silos and do not have enough time or energy to communicate effectively.
Ideas and knowledge are not shared and ineffective practices continue, compounding heavy workloads and worsening burnout.
What’s more, the team is not able to leverage the well-documented benefits of cognitive diversity.
Belbin Team Roles can help people to understand the different perspectives in their team and to use these to best effect, whether deciding who to consult about a particular problem or managing interactions.
5. A culture of busyness is often at odds with effective, strengths-based delegation
Research in the U.S found that people worked longer hours in the early months of the pandemic, out of a desire to stay busy.
In the process, they generated unnecessary work and stretched out the time it took to complete tasks, thereby worsening burnout.
If being seen to have a heavy workload is prized above all else, there is little room for delegating work effectively, to the person who is best suited to it.
When people work according to their strengths, they are six times more engaged. And if they’re doing work which comes most naturally to them, it means fewer distractions, more meaningful activity and less effort working towards outcomes which meet the team’s needs.
Whilst it may not always be possible to delegate exactly the kinds of work that each person most enjoys doing, it is possible to use their Team Role strengths in determining how the work might be done.
The Belbin Individual report can do just that. The ‘Suggested Work Styles’ page offers phrases people can use to describe the way they work best with others.
6. Busyness can stifle innovation and creativity
When individuals are constantly in a rush, stressed or preoccupied, there is little time and space for innovative thinking or focus.
We often glorify ‘multi-tasking’ at the expense of ‘deep work’ or sustained attention to complex tasks.
Belbin Team Roles can help you to identify which team members in particular might need this kind of support.
Strong Plants need plenty of time to think their way through difficult problems and come up with new ideas.
Those with Specialist strengths need the opportunity to focus on a subject in depth, in order to develop and maintain the expertise the team needs.
Belbin Individual reports identify where each person’s strengths lie. This data can be collated in a Team report so that you can see how each person contributes to the team.
If the team is lacking creative input or doesn’t make time for deep work, looking to the team’s Plants and Specialists respectively might be a good place to start.
Are provisions being made to ensure that there is time and space for this kind of work? Are the team being offered sufficient opportunities to generate new ideas through discussion and experimentation? Are there times when they can put up a ‘Do not disturb’ sign to achieve focus?
What strategies would enable those who seek to play those roles to be able to fulfil them?
7. Workloads aren’t sustainable
If everyone is constantly busy, perhaps it’s time to ask: are expectations realistic?
We often focus on the parameters of a job description, but even if the job looks manageable on paper, it may cause burnout if it requires someone to play to their weaknesses on a regular basis, or fulfil lots of Team Role contributions all at once or to a very high standard.
Belbin Job Reports can help to pin down what specific behaviours are required for a job, so that you can identify the best person to do it, whether you are building a project team or recruiting externally for a role.
As part of the process, the line manager (or whoever is responsible for the job) completes the Job Requirements Inventory, selecting the attributes that are most important for success in the role.
When this is completed in conjunction with other key stakeholders, it can provoke important discussions and resolve conflicts about what the job really entails.
If you wish, the resulting Job report can be compared with an individual’s Team Role data to produce a Job Comparison Report, which gives an overview of how well the person in question might fit with the job, in Team Role terms.
It starts at the top
We need to stop glorifying busyness. Belbin Team Roles can help to overcome the challenges posed by a culture of busyness – and it starts with leaders and managers.
If employees feel that they need to be seen as busy to justify their existence or attain rewards, performance will suffer.
On the other hand, when we trust individuals by enabling them to play to their strengths and delegating accordingly, engagement and outputs increase. Greater role clarity and optimised, supportive working environments help us to manage workloads more effectively.
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