What Is a False Sense of Urgency at Work (And How to Combat It)

Professional in an office setting, illustrating how to combat a false sense of urgency at work

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Amanda Cardoso
Amanda Cardoso
April 19, 2024 at 10:1PM UTC

Do all the tasks at your job need to be done by yesterday? Do you feel like you never know what you should be focusing on? Does your heart race, and do you automatically get anxious when you see a Slack notification or your manager approaching your desk? False sense of urgency at work can cause that.

This term describes a style of leadership and management that overestimates the urgency of tasks that aren't necessarily urgent. The root of this problem can vary from bad prioritization skills to bosses with micromanagement tendencies.

Workers who deal with this on a daily basis often feel overwhelmed or burned out at the end of the day. If you relate with any of these feelings, read on to learn what is a false sense of urgency at work and how to combat it.

What is a false sense of urgency at work?

If you're unfamiliar with the meaning of false sense of urgency, it refers to the exaggeration of a task's importance or urgency. “A false sense of urgency at work feels like being on a never-ending treadmill, where tasks are labeled as critical, but the rush isn't always justified,” says Ana Alipat, lead recruiter at DayJob Recruitment, specializing in connecting talents with leading blue-collar jobs

“It's like when a report is suddenly needed ‘ASAP’, but then sits on someone's desk for a week untouched. It creates unnecessary stress, diluting focus from genuinely urgent tasks,” she says.

How do leaders create a false sense of urgency?

Think about any TV show or movie with a toxic boss as one of the main characters. Now, try to recall a scene where another character gets screamed at to complete a task, only to find out by the end of the day that the task wasn't necessary at all. This is one of the most common examples of a false sense of urgency being created by a superior at work, but it doesn't stop there. 

Here are some other red flags to look out for:

  • Overemphasizing speed: Leaders encourage everybody to hurry to finish tasks as quickly as possible, sometimes even at the expense of the work's quality. “The default mode is rushing, regardless of the actual need,” says Alipat.

  • No prioritization of tasks: By treating all tasks or projects as equally urgent, leaders give employees the impression that every single demand is extremely important, and encourage unnecessary multitasking

  • Micromanagement: This practice can also contribute to a perception of false urgency. Employees can feel pressured to work faster and deliver quicker results when they're being micromanaged or constantly observed. 

  • Setting fake deadlines: Leaders who want everything done as fast as possible might set fabricated and unrealistic deadlines to make employees rush. “It's a climate where being perpetually busy or in a hurry is worn as a badge of honor,” says Alipat.

She also says that managers who equate urgency with efficiency usually tend to reward employees who perform faster but not necessarily better. “This approach can overshadow thoughtful planning and quality work, making the workplace feel like a high-stress sprint.”

How to combat false sense of urgency at work?

It's quite difficult to simply relax and ignore the false sense of urgency when your work environment pushes you to go with the flow. However, you can adopt strategies to combat the fake urgency culture and foster a new dynamic of genuine urgency, where only true priorities are treated as such.

1. Acknowledge what is happening

The first step to change any unhealthy situation is to recognize and admit what's happening—whether you're a subordinate or the leader of your team. It's easy to slip into denial mode and just accept things as they are, or feel pressure to comply in order to keep your job. But remember, you don't have to.

Observe if your or your superiors' behavior fits into one or more of the false sense of urgency examples above, and how your workday makes you feel. If you're constantly overwhelmed by a pile of urgent tasks, jumping from one priority to another, without understanding the reason for such frenzy, this is a sign that you're stuck in an unhealthy cycle of false urgency.

2. Identify the cause of the problem

Pinpoint the root cause of this frenetic rhythm in your workplace. Maybe there's a new boss that everybody wants to impress, maybe it's a critical time of the year, or maybe it's just bad management. So, ask yourself:

  • If you are a leader: Are you the one constantly treating everything as a top priority? If the answer is yes, why do you do that? 

  • If you are a subordinate: Is it your boss or your coworkers who are enforcing this fast-paced production mindset? Do they give clear directions and a timeline for completing tasks, or do they simply label everything as a priority?

  • For both: Are you able to determine what is truly urgent and what is not?

3.  Foster a culture of prioritization

OK, you've recognized the signs and causes of the problem. Now, it's time to apply some strategies to change the situation. To combat the false sense of urgency at work, you need to counterattack with a laser focus on prioritization. 

“Tackling the false sense of urgency starts with distinguishing between what's truly urgent and what can wait,” says Ana Alipat. In other words, develop a system to identify tasks needing immediate attention and prioritize them before anything else. She suggests following theses three steps:

  1. Open communication. Whatever your level of seniority in your team, you should be able to ask you questions about the tasks being assigned to you and how critical they are at the moment. 

  1. Setting realistic deadlines. Did someone just delegated you a task that is not really urgent? Politely suggest a more realistic timeline to finish it. “Pushing back diplomatically when tasks are artificially escalated can help,” says Alipat.

  1. Don't be a people pleaserDo you have too much on your plate already? Communicate that as well.  Your superior or coworker needs to be aware that you already have tasks you're focusing on before asking you to shift your focus to something else. “Setting clear priorities and boundaries also helps manage expectations.”

If you're a leader, your role should be making yourself an example. “As a manager, valuing quality, thoughtful planning, and employee well-being over mere speed can shift the workplace culture towards a more sustainable and productive environment,” says Alipat.

4. Pay attention to the language you use

Are you used to always having the words “urgent”, “emergency”, “quick”, or “priority” when delivering a task? Perhaps it's time to start being more thoughtful with your language. 

If you've made it this far, you likely understand that not everything is so critical all the time. However, those who work with or for you may be getting the wrong impression based on the way you word your phrases. Try to be more intentional with your communication to avoid creating a false sense of urgency. 

5. Empower your team

This advice is specially for leaders. If you feel like your team is mature enough to make some decisions by themselves, you should allow them to decide their daily priorities. Only intervene when there's a real necessity, such as low productivity or a delayed delivery, for example.

By doing that, you not only avoid creating false urgency but also save the time that would otherwise be spent micromanaging your employees. “It's about creating a space where urgency is based on actual needs, not just habits or appearances,” says Alipat.

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