The busyness paradigm affecting small business growth

blog Mar 21, 2023

One of my biggest hates is when you ask people how they are doing, and they respond with  ‘BUSY’!!

“Time poverty” is the new term, with reasons numerous, but business cultures that value busyness are at least partially to blame.

Put simply, busyness has become a status symbol amongst many people in small business. 

Research shows that people perceive others who are busy, and who use products indicating they’re busy (like a Bluetooth headset for multitasking), to be important and impressive.

In addition, newly published studies led by psychologist Jared Celniker, have found that across the United States, France and South Korea, people consider those who exert high effort to be “morally admirable,” regardless of their output. 

What a load of bullshit!!

But when it comes to business life, busyness is not a virtue, and it is about time that businesses stopped ‘lionising’ it. 

Evaluating employees on how busy they are is a terrible way to identify the most creative and productive talent. 

Yet many small businesses reward and promote only people who display how “hard” they’re working. 

The effect on businesses and their people is significant. 

Research indicates that when businesses overload employees, base their incentives primarily on the amount of time they work, and excessively monitor their activities, productivity and efficiency actually drop. 

Exhaustion among employees can increase turnover, at considerable cost to a businesses financial performance. 

Even if employees don’t leave, busyness harms the bottom line by reducing staff engagement and increasing absenteeism. 

It also damages peoples health.

A 2021 World Health Organisation report showed that overwork can increase the risk of stroke, heart disease and ultimately death. 

Sadly, I have a mate who recently passed away and I am firm in the belief that his work hours over many years was a contributing factor. 

Conversely, research suggests that reducing working hours to more manageable levels can enhance productivity.

I am hopeful that managers now are more open to reconsidering the value of busyness than they have been in a long time. 

A tight labour market that has increased the negotiating power of overwhelmed employees is one factor, but the pandemic has changed the cultural climate, as time away from offices has led people at all levels to reassess their relationship with their work. 

Why we revere busyness

One of social psychology’s authoritative findings is that the harder people work to achieve something, the more they value it. 

Known as “effort justification,” this tendency arises even when a task is meaningless. 

And the more demanding the effort is, the more commitment people feel. 

New hires forced to work long hours, for instance, might persuade themselves - if I work this hard, I must really want to be here. 

The problem is that while we go on justifying the slog, we fail to notice burnout creeping up on us.

Once a culture of busyness is established, it tends to persist unchallenged. 

In an influential 1988 article, management scholars Blake Ashforth and Yitzhak Fried wrote that a lot of organisational behaviour is mindless. 

Production workers “go on automatic”, employees follow established rules and procedures without questioning their effectiveness, and managers make hires and promotions based on superficial cues and first impressions. 

Indeed, much of what managers believe to be institutional knowledge and culture is actually just shit habits.

Unfortunately, busyness can get embedded in day-to-day activities unless leaders and managers can explicitly root it out through strategy. 

People create endless amounts of work based on what they think matters, hence why strategy is an important way of cutting through the busyness crap.

Any of the following sound familiar? 

“You’ll say, ‘I need you to focus on this priority,’ or ‘I need you to move on price,’ or ‘we need to go buy a company or partner with a new organisation.’ And everyone goes, ‘Well, I can’t - I’m way too busy.’ 

And then you ask, ‘Busy doing what?’”

What happens when you don’t design the right jobs for the right people in your business?

When businesses encourage busyness, employees rarely resist. 

That’s because even if they recognise the downside of unproductive efforts over the long term, in the moment they deplore idleness. 

Studies on “idleness aversion” led by behavioural science professor Christopher Hsee shows that people will choose to do something that keeps them busy (such as disassembling and reassembling a bracelet) rather than wait idly for 15 minutes, as long as they can generate even the most vaguely justifiable reason.

Even a pandemic could not shake this aversion to idleness. 

While managers worried that new work-from-home arrangements brought on by Covid-19 would cause employees to slack off, many worked longer hours in the early months of the pandemic, even as the economy slowed. 

Unfortunately, their desire to stay busy may have made them generate unnecessary work and stretch out the time it took to complete existing tasks, exacerbating their burnout.

A final reason businesses value busyness is that their customers do. 

In many cases, customers equate effort with worth. 

In one simple demonstration of this phenomena, experimenters showed that participants liked various items (such as a poem, a painting and a suit of armour) more and rated them higher in quality and value when they thought more effort had gone into producing them. 

Research by the HBS operations professor Ryan Buell found that cafe customers reported greater satisfaction with their service when a sandwich was made in front of them - when they could observe the work that went into it - than when an identical sandwich was delivered to them. 

Like a foreman telling his crew to “look sharp” because a client is approaching, bosses will sometimes keep their employees busy because it seems that’s what their customers want.

How to reverse course

What can businesses do to reverse this course? 

From experience, the following five approaches can help overcome an obsession with busyness.

1. Reward output, not just activity

As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. 

So unsurprisingly, paying people for effort can lead to more effort rather than greater productivity. 

A classic study of the legal profession led by Suffolk University’s Renée Landers, shows that law firms’ tendency to promote associates who have the most billable hours leads to a rat-race mentality, and causes lawyers to work too many hours, inefficiently.

I would suggest this still applies with most large law and accounting firms unfortunately, but that is their model!

Shifting to performance-based pay can enhance worker productivity but comes with its own risks. 

I have seen businesses that shifted from an hourly rate of pay, to pay based on output, and experience significantly increased productivity.

Of course, employees should not be rewarded solely for output, as that can encourage overwork and burnout if people get too wrapped up in chasing rewards. 

It can also impact the quality of output.

Incentives focused just on output can also impede innovation, which often requires “inefficient” misfires and failures.

Ideally, remuneration should combine incentives based on both input (to encourage risk taking and innovation), output (to maximise overall productivity) and living your core values.

Rewarding workers at least in part for the quality of their results will help ensure quality is not compromised.

2. Assess whether your organisation is generating deep work and eliminating low-value work

Cal Newport has detailed how important it is for companies to enable what he calls “deep work,” or sustained attention to cognitively demanding tasks. 

Unfortunately, many businesses bombard employees with shallow work (data entry, nonessential meetings, filing expense reports and so on), interfering with their ability to do deep work. 

Indeed, a large body of research shows that multitasking reduces productivity by as much as 40%. 

Because multitasking feels more productive than doing just one thing, it’s easy to overlook the accumulation of “switching costs” (shifting between tasks). 

I learnt this many years ago, and now focus on one thing at a time.

3. Force people off the clock

Just as managers worried that employees would take advantage of working remotely during the pandemic, many businesses fear that employees will abuse generous leave policies. 

There should not be any expectations for employees to work or even check emails while they are on leave.

How about incentivising true time off by paying people to take vacations and stipulating that if employees open a work email, they must return their holiday pay….I reckon this would work! 

I love the example of the German automaker Daimler (now Mercedes-Benz), who in 2014, enabled employees to use an out-of-office email program that automatically erased any emails they received on holiday, informing the senders their emails had been deleted and that they could contact someone else in case of an emergency. 

One of the most interesting discoveries in neuroscience over the past 20 years points to another good reason for forcing employees to disengage. 

Researchers found that activity in the network of brain regions involved in attention-demanding tasks (known as the “task-positive network”) tends to be negatively correlated with activity in the network of brain regions involved in thinking beyond the present (known as the “default network” because of its tendency to be active - by default - during moments of rest). 

This means that the more the brain is engaged in a specific task (even busywork), the less it can transcend the here-and-now. 

If you want your employees to truly thrive, you need to allow time for their minds to wander.

This includes ensuring they take regular holidays.

4. Model the right behaviour

You often hear businesses say they value well-being over busyness, but this will only resonate with employees if they see the owner or managers take time off too. 

The boldest leaders aren’t those who burn the midnight oil; they’re the individuals who set the norm by taking a pause. 

When managers demonstrate that their own busyness is not a prerequisite for success, employees are more likely to believe it. 

5. Build slack into the system

In addition to the psychological factors, the major causes of busyness are constraints on time and resources. 

Real or perceived!

When hospital systems face budgetary cuts, acute events like the Covid-19 pandemic overtax medical staff, increasing wait times and even contributing to unnecessary deaths of people who need urgent care. 

When supply chains are disrupted, companies get bogged down handling customer complaints, managing fluctuating prices and figuring out alternative ways to get products delivered.

As Seth Godin puts it, “Systems with slack are more resilient.”

Slack is essential when you’re trying to keep everyone’s day-to-day workload manageable. 

Building up resources will always be expensive, but losing good employees or loyal customers because of an overly busy work environment or slow service will ultimately be more costly.

Don’t get sucked into the wrong mindset!

Rethinking your employee value proposition

A great quote from a USA basketball coach, John Wooden:

“Never mistake activity for achievement.” 

Yet businesses keep falling into that trap, despite considerable evidence that increased work doesn’t necessarily lead to increased productivity.

Given that too many businesses continue to reward busyness, it can be tempting to go with the flow instead of fighting to reform broken incentive structures. 

Yet doing so would not only be unwise, but quite possibly deadly.

Research shows that since the 1990s, employees increasingly have been working harder and under tighter deadlines and more stressful conditions as they try to master additional skills to outpace the robots gunning for their jobs and as digital devices trap them in a 24/7 workplace.

This has taken a significant toll on mental and physical health

Small businesses and leaders must step up to take a stand against the busyness epidemic, so we can begin to create not only more sustainable businesses, but also more sustainable jobs.

What do you intend to do?

Our ‘Business Transformation Program’ has a lot of tools and tips to help your small business eradicate busyness - better lead by example, manage your directs with the right work behaviours and yourself be more productive and less stressed.