People Don't Quit Their Jobs, They Quit Their Bosses

Demanding Urgency and Creating Stress

When you think of high productivity organizations, there are a number of companies that come to mind. Of course, there are Amazon, Walmart, FedEx, Apple, and tens of thousands more—yes, thousands. When I say high productivity, it’s not just the widget producers, it’s also high-stress jobs that seem to have the wheel spinning on the highest setting for lengthy periods. These kinds of teams tend to create a self-inflicted urgency, real or perceived, to produce or perform for the purpose of profit, clout, or simply trying to make a significant entry into an industry. But, unfortunately, these companies symbiotically have a tendency to create an unintended shadow of stress on their people. Urgency, by definition, is a force that impels and constrains. That means when the dial is turned up, so too is the stress meter. Absolutely, there are times to raise the demand. Depending on the organization, that could be holidays or a response to an external factor. But it’s these unplanned or unexplainable urgencies that literally create freeze-fight-flight responses physiologically. Don’t get me wrong, people are resilient enough to raise the performance standards for a period of time. But people are creatures of habit. When these occur too frequently, they question their ability to perform in that arena and ultimately cause a retention disturbance. They begin to contemplate if this is the right job for them. I’ve seen this with my own eyes. They say, “I don’t get paid enough for this!” Or say, “They don’t treat me well enough for me to stick my neck out for them.” You may have picked up on it. “They.”

Stress has a protective layer that can keep you going for a period of time. Then it has a way of beating you down. You’ll notice a feeling of emotional or physical tension. The good thing about stress, it will react well to a challenge or demanding goals—but only in short bursts. When leaders move the needle or set unrealistic goals, it wears you down. You first will be frustrated because you came up short, then your body will tell you that you have to take a knee. On average, people don’t do well with work stress. Depending on their own life circumstances, it becomes a combined weight for them to carry.  Let’s agree, life stress doesn’t get left in a parked car or stowed in a locker before work.

Although companies will, at some point, shift gears and deliberately ramp up to a planned speed, time, and duration. When it is planned it actually reduces stress. Unfortunately, companies maintain an urgent or unplanned level for too long or too frequently. Ramping up to chase a profit margin or annual goal without resourcing it puts an incredible burden on the backs of a dedicated team. Your people feel it physically and mentally. And if your strategy is to just “go faster,” that’s the point where you lose them. There’s no need to run a horse at full speed at all times just because you can. That’s why there are sprint specialists and marathon runners, and never shall the two skills cross. This is why urgency has to be intentional.

“People don’t rise to the occasion, they sink to their training” – Author

If people, in fact, don’t rise to the occasion and you create a sudden urgency, it comes with risks. Risks to safety, injury, and accuracy. Why? Because they weren’t trained or, in the least, prepared to operate at that level.

High producing or high volume teams will have to specialize in having increased communication, robust training, and tempered leadership to create a sense of urgency without anxiety. This urgency cannot run at 100% all year round. People have to take a knee–and especially your high performers.  I will get to that in a minute.


1. Communication. Communicate urgencies well in advance so much that it becomes annoying. Answer the, “Why?” Communicatie the customer or downstream needs that are causing the team to ramp up. There has to be a rationale for the urgency—communicate it early. Communicate the trigger points when an urgency is pending or on the horizon. Giving workers opportunities to prepare or process the ramp-up will reduce significantly anxiety.

2. Training. Elevate training and just-in-time systems that prepare workers for an increased expectation or urgent speed. Have a “season of growth” and mechanical capacity adjustments. Train your team on how to produce at a high level without running hot. Machines require oil to prevent “burnout.” What is the “oil” you use for your team? Walk your team through scenarios that demand increased performance so they know what it looks and feels like.

3. Leadership. Effective leadership that balances the demand and current capability, it tempers micro-management, and it takes panic off the table. Increasing capacity requires the deliberate development of your bench or next-tier talent. Have some vision—prevent the zero-to-100 mph effect that ignites the freeze-fight-flight response. Empower your team to see and adjust for leaner opportunities that eliminate wasted time and energy so speeding up naturally improves without additional effort.

“If urgency signals panic, good people look for other jobs.”

Let’s look at my insinuation that “they” come into play when workers start to overheat. When leaders fail to communicate, train, or inspire them.  They begin to feel they are simply a mechanical cog to a system that can be dialed up or down at a whim. People want to be respected as people. When they don’t, they create a separation between those that manage the dial and those that respond to it. So, effectively, management becomes they and workers are a separate entity—now you no longer have a team, just players.

Here’s my final thought about urgency. Managers can guilt you into sprinting a marathon by labeling you as their rock star or model performer. Those empty labels drive them to work harder or ignore the stress to live up to the title. Eventually, it will create a burnout situation. Leaders have to sense this condition in their people and throttle back at an effective level to avoid pushing their people over the edge. You can absolutely lose your said rock stars by depending on them to save the day—and every day.  Here’s the thing—they know the heaviest weight is being placed on them. And it’s not a problem until you don’t demand high performance from the less-talented ones.

There’s a famous saying allegedly by a Navy Seal, “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” Having the appropriate mechanical systems and process flow can make ramping up less demanding. Improve these systems so that when the demand increases, it complements the heightened speed of your people. Creating conditions and a culture where communication, training, and effective leadership are foundational can make urgencies stress-free.

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