Tips for Increasing the Sense of Urgency Within Your Team

A “sense of urgency” is made up of two parts:

  1. the extent to which we perceive a situation or problem as important and
  2. whether that situation or problem requires swift action over deliberate action.

Teams that lack a healthy sense of urgency risk not being able to respond effectively to sudden changes in their business. Whether it’s a client’s request to change project specifications before a looming deadline or beginning damage control for a bug that a user found in your system, a practiced sense of calm urgency reduces the stress that is inherent to these types of situations and allows your team to focus and respond both swiftly and effectively.

Try these six approaches for increasing your team’s sense of urgency by encouraging the development of new habits of thinking, perceiving and acting.

1. Equip Your Team

It is the responsibility of the leadership to make sure all teammates understand the priorities of the team and organization. It is also the leader’s responsibility to promptly communicate any sudden reordering of these priorities. Furthermore, team members must be given some leeway when it comes to projects that were reduced in priority. It’s important that the team understands they will not be punished for lost time that was reallocated to a more urgent project.

Team members must also be equipped with preparedness plans for the most common scenarios that cause the sudden re-prioritization of their projects. Just like an evacuation plan for a natural disaster, these plans should be readily available to all team members and team members should be encouraged to fully understand the plans before disaster strikes.

2. Stay on Your Toes

As a leader, you have to assess whether your team is too cozy to respond effectively to urgent situations. When untested for too long a team can give in to the monotony of the workday. Then, when an urgent situation arises they may not be mentally prepared to handle it. Even when your organization is in a period of peace and prosperity, continue to challenge your team with new projects and encourage them to be consistently learning new things.

3. Understand the Situation

A sense of urgency first requires a grasp of reality and an effort to make good judgments. That lack of urgency you are observing in your team members could reflect their misunderstanding of the situation. A flat affect and slow pace of work is an indicator of confusion.

Sometimes the leader simply needs to lay it all out for employees. “Let me explain what is happening and what I need from you. If I am unclear, ask me questions.” Clarifying questions often reveal the level of understanding your team possess. The gap between recognition and response will reflect their capacity to judge the situation correctly then act with urgency. Other times, explanations may not help. “Just do it… I’ll explain later” may be the appropriate response for an overwhelmed  team member so long as you have built a relationship of trust.

4. Clarify the Consequences

Fostering a sense of urgency is more difficult when teams fail to fully grasp the real consequences of poor performance. If you’re frustrated by excuses, then you are likely tolerating them. Effective leaders are a force to be reckoned with. Consequences have to be real.

A few years ago, I observed a senior executive effectively calibrate his team to the sense of urgency required in response to competitive challenges threatening 40 percent of the business’s annual sales. Subordinate leaders were hedging, offering extended timelines that did not jive with the urgency needed. Realizing the group did not grasp the reality of the situation, he told the highly-compensated attendees: “I’m looking at my watch, you’re looking at your calendar. Fix this now or you will all have plenty of free time on your calendars in a few months!”

5. Act in Proportion to the Urgency

As a leader, ask yourself: Do you react to all problems with the same level of intensity or do you differentiate according to the situation? The intensity of your reactions ought to be in direct proportion to the importance of what is at stake. When everything is urgent you risk overwhelming team members.

The most common intensity problem for leaders is showing too much emotion too often. Reacting out of proportion to even the smallest of items whiplashes a team. Emotional exhaustion often yields a quiet cynicism — there he goes again! Alternatively, leaders who frequently show very little emotion may cause their respective team members to wonder what the leader is thinking. As a result, the team is left guessing as to what is at stake in the situation.

6. Reward Team Members

Changing your team’s sense of urgency may take time. Success begins with small steps. Reward incremental successes by recognizing your team members who set an example for others in demonstrating a sense of urgency. A simple “way to go!” goes a long way. Try to quantify your improvements as much as possible and communicate those numbers back to team members as the new benchmarks of success.

Like a child touching a hot stove, urgency declines or improves in an organization in proportion to the organization’s capacity to properly perceive the pain/performance connection. Urgency provides a kind of physiological fusion of mind and heart, intellect and will for focused and targeted action. Urgency helps us push through pain rather succumb to it. You, the leader, must be able to bring these parts together to help your team understand what is at stake.

Master these approaches to foster the precise and purposeful action truly needed for your team to succeed when urgency is required. Remember, the status quo sets in when a group loses its intensity and teams stop feeling the sting of competitive winds and storms. One day, they will wake up… out in the cold.