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team lacks sense of urgency

How to Lead When Your Team Lacks a Sense of Urgency

by | Oct 11, 2021 | By David Dye, Winning Well |

People’s sense of urgency varies. Schedule the finish to get everyone on the same page.

It’s a common leadership frustration that we’ve experienced and hear from leaders regularly: “My people lack a sense of urgency. I must follow up on everything or we miss deadlines. I’m tired of babysitting! How can I ensure things get done on time?” Paradoxically, leaders with a high internal sense of urgency can struggle with this the most. The good news is that with a few straightforward tools, you can help everyone work effectively and meet those timelines.

5 Steps to Get Things Done with a Common Sense of Urgency

  1. Respond with Proportion
  2. Identify Routine Tasks to Schedule the Finish
  3. Schedule the Finish for Delegated Assignments
  4. Check for Understanding
  5. Close the Loop with Celebration and Accountability

You probably won’t have success by telling people “We need to have a sense of urgency.” Urgency means different things to different folks. People naturally have different perspectives on what matters and why. Some value thoroughness above timeliness, others may have a sense of timeliness that differs from your own. (If you need proof, ask three people to define the word “soon.”)

You can help your team be most effective and lower your stress by creating a common understanding and shared commitments through these five steps.

1. Respond with proportion.

As with so much of leadership, the first step is to examine yourself. Your team pays attention to how you respond to tasks, opportunities, and problems.

If you treat every problem or task with the same passion and intensity, your team won’t know what’s truly important. They filter out the extreme responses as “That’s just the way he is.” Or, if you’re very reserved, you’ll have the same problem. Your team won’t know what’s important.

So be you, but with some range. Use passion and intensity for what matters most. (And by using the tools that follow, you’ll find you need less emotional energy to get things done.)

2. Identify routine tasks to schedule the finish.

This is a two-step process.

First, look at the different types of tasks your team members do regularly. There are routine tasks that are part of one’s work. Then there are occasional delegated, assigned tasks, or projects. Begin with routine tasks. Group them into similar categories. For example, in a particular role, you might have categories such as document accounts, respond to inquiries, and complete research for proposals.

Next, “schedule the finish” for these routine tasks.

Schedule the finish means that you clearly define what “done” looks like, with a specific, scheduled time that something will be finished. You don’t leave that sense of urgency to chance or interpretation. Here’s a specific example: in our business, we have a category of “responding to prospects and customers.”

Our schedule-the-finish for this category is that everyone receives a response within 24 hours. For specific categories, they’ll hear from us within four hours.

These routine tasks often cause frustration for leaders. If you’ve ever thought “This is just part of your job, why can’t you do it with urgency?” Then bucketing these routine tasks and creating shared scheduled finishes will help.

Here is the critical question: With no other conversation between you and your employees, if I were to talk to them and ask “What’s your manager’s expectation for when these items should be done?” Would they give me the same answer you would?

(Unsure how they’ll respond? Ask them yourself and see what they say.)

If they’re on the same page about what success looks like, you’re good to go. If they would respond differently than you or would be unsure, then it’s time to establish clear expectations about what success looks like for the individual buckets or categories of work.

For ongoing tasks, you can do the same thing. But the goal might be something like “complete weekly.” For instance, if an employee’s doing customer contact and they need to document the account with conversations and activities taken, perhaps they catch up to 100% completion by end-of-ay every Wednesday and Friday.

3. Schedule the finish for delegated assignments.

The second category of tasks includes items that aren’t routine. Delegated assignments, project work, or multi-part tasks.

For high-urgency leaders, these tasks usually needed to be completed “yesterday.” But these leaders don’t set a timeline. So the other person puts it on their list but works on other items first. In the meantime, the high-urgency leader is frustrated at the other person’s perceived lack of urgency.strategic leadership training programs

This is where scheduling the finish is vital. Even the most dedicated team members have to decide about what work they’ll do next. The timeframe is critical to that decision. If you don’t share it, you’re setting yourself up for frustration.

It may feel like babysitting, but tasks with finish lines get done. But people generally push tasks without finish lines to the end of the line until they become critically urgent. That’s not a lack of urgency—it’s a rational approach to managing multiple priorities.

When you create a finish line, that establishes a common vocabulary and shared sense of urgency. For multi-step projects, there are milestones dates that need to be met and can be established upfront.

4. Check for understanding.

As you wrap up conversations, check with the other person or team to make sure you have a shared understanding of what a sense of urgency means. (This is not asking “Do you understand?” At best, a “yes” to that question means they think they understand.)

A good check for understanding ensures that all parties share the same interpretation. For example, “Great discussion. I want to make sure we’re on the same page going forward. What’s your understanding of the timeframes?” For more on the check for understanding and how it works together with scheduling the finish, check out these six competencies you can’t lead without.

Ensure that you both have a mutual, shared understanding of the words you exchanged.

5. Close the loop with celebration and accountability.

Once you and your team have that shared understanding of what success looks like, it’s time to reinforce it. When the team succeeds, celebrate it. You get more of what you celebrate and encourage, less of what you criticize or ignore. So reinforce what’s working. For the routine items, you don’t need to reinforce them every time, but periodically call attention and celebrate excellence.

When it doesn’t happen, it’s time for a performance conversation. When you first establish new timeframes, you may have to reinforce them with a couple of performance conversations. After that, if someone continues to struggle, you might need to reinforce with an escalated conversation about the pattern of issues with timeliness.

Your Turn

I’d love to hear from you. How do you schedule the finish and ensure your teams have shared commitments to timeliness?

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!


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David Dye helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  He’s the President of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. He’s the award-winning authors of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict, and hosts the popular Leadership without Losing Your Soul podcast. David is a former executive and elected official. David and his wife and business partner, Karin Hurt, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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Get the FREE Courageous Cultures E-Book to learn how

7 Practical Ways to be a Bit More Daring

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