We all know one person who thinks every to-do is urgent. Everything the person asks of you needs to be done right now. Maybe, as the leader, you are that person, expecting your employees to drop everything to focus on your requests, no matter how insignificant. Right now, when people are already feeling stressed, overwhelmed and distracted, that kind of attitude can have a negative impact on employees’ work.
If people feel they have to pivot to address every incoming email or instant message, they’ll never get anything done. Beyond that, when you treat every issue as urgent, it becomes really difficult to know when something is in fact an emergency. Every task is treated the same.
As a leader, the best thing you can do, whenever you assign a task, no matter how big or small, is to tell your employees how to prioritize it by:
- Putting things in perspective. As yourself, “In the grand scheme of things, how important is it? And is it important enough to ask my employee(s) to prioritize it?”
- Assessing their workloads. You are assigning the work, so you should know when employees’ plates are full. Still, when a truly urgent task takes precedence over all their other work, ask them: “What else are you working on?” You may discover that they have equally important priorities or that you need to extend the deadlines on less important work.
- Providing a concrete deadline. Don’t use vague phrases like “ASAP,” “sometime this week” or “by the end of the week.” Always provide an exact date and time.
However, what if it’s your employee who thinks everything is urgent? Take this advice:
- Help to alleviate their pressure. Most people label everything as urgent because 1) they are behind on their own work and need others to help them catch up or 2) they feel pressured to complete everything very quickly. Talk to them about their workloads to find out why they are struggling to keep up or why they feel the need to rush through their work. Setting deadlines and helping them to prioritize will help, but you also may need to make adjustments to how much you are asking them to do or help them figure out ways to be more productive.
- Don’t praise people for finishing first. That encourages them to rush through the work and, worse, encourage their coworkers to do the same thing. If a quick turnaround benefits the team, for example, by helping you land a client, you can praise their speed. However, in general, focus on the results and thoroughness of the work, rather than just how fast they did it.
- Ask them to assign deadlines too. It’s important to explain to your team that only emergency tasks should be labeled as urgent, and that all other tasks should have reasonable deadlines attached to them. Coworkers should be given at least 24 hours to complete even for small tasks. It’s the courteous thing to do. Asking for instant turnaround should be rare.
When you follow this advice, people learn to better prioritize and manage their time so that when urgent issues do crop up, everyone is willing and able to help deal with it.