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How to Manage Someone Who Thinks Everything Is Urgent

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We’ve all been in situations in which we couldn’t wait for a slow-moving or overly cautious employee to take action. But at the other extreme, some employees have such a deep need to get things resolved that they move too quickly, or too intensely, and make a mess. They may make a bad deal just to say they’ve made it, or issue a directive without thinking through the ramifications just to say they’ve handled a problem decisively.

The problem is that these employees may have been praised in the past for this very behavior, even when it results in mistakes that they can then heroically “save.” And when urgency is a part of the organizational culture, it may feel like a requirement to move fast, whether you’re a leader or a frontline employee. At a basic level, because urgency generates so much activity, it can be hard to recognize it as an organizational problem. But it’s a significant one. Executives report that thousands of dollars are lost every business day when decisions are rote or arbitrary because of pro forma, nonstrategic decision making.

And yet, despite the damage that unaddressed urgency can do, urgent employees are usually some of the most committed and are often very productive. Here are steps you can take to mitigate the negative impact of their urgency, to help them focus their intensity on the right targets and ensure they make better long-term decisions before taking action.

Help them recognize their impact on others. Show how collaboration pays off for everyone — including them. One assistant VP I worked with was correct about what needed to be accomplished, but he was driven to “get it over with” and “put it behind” him, and often operated unilaterally to get things done. Because he was only urgent about his own goals and tasks, he was perceived as a bad partner and not a team player. I encouraged his manager to affirm the importance of collaboration, and to ask him specifically to prepare the equivalent of “impact statements” as a way to force interaction and cooperation with other parties. His manager also learned to stop praising him for every accomplishment and to praise him instead for the process — joint planning, coordination, and interdepartmental success.

Encourage them to identify all the consequences of their actions. It’s typical for urgent employees to see only the upside of acting quickly, not the negative effects of acting too quickly. A VP at a nonprofit client had a history of making decisions hastily and without sufficient data. These decisions led to some unfortunate employee layoffs, despite her having been asked to consult with others and weigh such decisions carefully. After we had her rehearse the termination conversations with employees she had just hired, and we dramatized the impact the termination would have on them as individuals and on their families, the exposure to the pain she was causing finally got her attention.

Pair them with long-term thinkers. Effective interventions let urgent employees actually experience the success that comes from a more deliberate, thoughtful approach. A senior sales specialist brought in many deals because he was both diligent and intense. But he was so eager to get the deals that, as soon as a prospect indicated even a tentative yes, he would offer anything they seemed to want to close their initial order rather than strengthening his own presentation to get better value. After he brought in several new accounts that were significantly smaller than potential or had too many strings attached, his management paired him with a more cerebral colleague who excelled in research and planning. The combination of high energy and careful planning increased the number and size of deals.

Coach them to separate the feeling of urgency from what actually needs to be done. Addressing underlying concerns often mitigates the apparent need for urgency. During a period of organizational growth, a previously solid team leader made people nuts because he seemed to not take others’ input, needed to manage everything himself, and didn’t share enough information or decision making with his team. His team’s growth and development was suppressed, and he was almost always overwhelmed and holding up progress. We discussed various aspects of project management so that he could see he had all the elements under control, and then I asked, “What’s the actual pressure?” After discussion, it became clear that the pressure wasn’t from the work itself so much as from feeling alone with the awesome responsibility of handling it all. We used mindfulness techniques to help him cope with the feeling and various techniques for engaging his team so that they understood the ramifications, how to anticipate, how to shoulder more responsibility, and how to warn him if anything was going off course.

Employees who are driven by excessive urgency often act like they’re scratching an itch rather than making intentional efforts to accomplish and grow as much as they can, either for themselves or their organizations. Once they realize that additional reflection and deliberation can generate significantly better results, they can learn to corral their urgency in service of being a better leader and achieving better performance.

Photo credit: Vincent Tsui for HBR

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