Have you ever worked with a panic merchant? Or a drama queen? Or a person who likes to tell you how busy they are? And do they tend to solve things? Do they achieve much? Do you ever feel inclined to talk over an issue with them – just to get their calm perspective?
Unfortunately, this behaviour can be admired or promoted by a boss. ‘She works so hard!’ ‘He is totally committed!’
But what is achieved? An average manager can be fooled by the dramatic performer. Worse, they may start to believe that this person is indispensable.
In my experience, when these people move on, a great deal of unnecessary work is discovered. Commitments they deemed highly important will begin to atrophy as they walk out the door. The business carries on. The graveyards, as Clemenceau once said, are full of indispensable men.
In 1908, Yerkes and Dodson studied the relationship between busyness, or in their words, ‘arousal,’ and performance. Lengthy research involving rodents persuaded them that performance did increase with mind and body arousal, but only up to a point. I’m sure we all knew that anyway.
We all know the tipping point, and I reach it occasionally, when one of your feet stays on the ground and you find yourself going in a circle, almost flapping your arms, making whimpering noises, achieving absolutely nothing. Worse – you are almost a danger to yourself and to anyone passing by with a tray of hot coffee. At these moments, a kind soul might tell you to get a grip, and if they are Australian, the advice might justifiably be, ‘keep your hair on.’
Panic in the workplace is never justified. Few things in an office are a true crisis. If the personnel of the emergency ward, the bomb disposal team and the fire crew can move at a safe pace and work as a focussed team in order to think clearly and stay safe, then so can the rest of us.
In an article on busyness in the Australian Financial Review, Ed Smith wrote, ‘there was a time when people cultivated sprezzatura, even if they were faking it.’ Sprezzatura, and it’s a word that deserves a comeback, is the art of studied carelessness, a certain nonchalance so as to appear that the output has been effortless. ‘Today it seems to be more important to be busy.’
Harmut Rosa, a German social theorist, has put our desire to be busy (or flap about) as part of the problem of the acceleration society. Labour saving technology, which has delivered enormous chunks of free time, has been accompanied by a dramatic rise in feelings of stress and a perceived lack of time. Being busy has become a style of living. ‘Are you keeping busy?’ can often replace ‘how are you?’
And busyness can be accompanied by emotional trauma. I was recently on a phone call with a lawyer who said she’d had PTSD after a busy couple of months of work. Really? Was her workload as a lawyer genuinely traumatizing? Would that be like, for example, losing everything when your house burns down? How does a few busy months as a lawyer compare to losing a child, losing a limb, or arriving at the scene of a horror smash on a highway.
We bandy these terms like traumatic, manic, shell shock and PTSD about and it is offensive to those who genuinely face disaster. One of my bosses kept a photo in his desk drawer of soldiers about to go ‘over the top’ in the trenches of Belgium, circa 1917. His mother gave it to him to remind him about perspective.
Thoreau wrote in 1842, long before the saying ‘work smarter, not harder’ really took off, that “the really efficient labourer will be found not to crowd his day with work but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time and does not exaggerate the value of the husk. Those who work much do not work hard.”
Morten Hansen, a Norwegian born business scholar from the University of California, has completed a study of US workers over five years to arrive at the same conclusion as Thoreau. “The top performers do less. Top performers may have a knack for sidestepping inessential tasks and focus on a few essential things.’
Busyness is not necessarily achievement. And it simply won’t matter how hard we flap about. Better to work on cultivating an air of sprezzatura.