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A State of Unrest: Are We Perpetuating Urgency Culture?

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

This is part 2/4 of Lydia Phillip's series on urgency culture. Read part one.

This piece includes references to Tema Okun's work on white supremacy culture.

Capitalism doesn’t honour our humanity. We constantly feel the demands of labour, the unsustainable pace of work, the friction if we attempt to slow down, the guilt from listening to our bodies, and we experience the social retaliation of not producing.

We defer our own Rest to adhere to the pressures of capitalism. The routine of overwork, the strategic interruption of Rest, and the constant state of urgency in our days is one of the many symptoms of colonialism and white supremacy — urgency culture.

There’s a stark difference between urgent work and urgency culture.

Urgent work is a justifiable presence in our lives. It’s required in the resistance against colonialism and white supremacy, and toward justice, self-determination, decolonization, and liberation. Urgent work and Rest together are necessary, as Rest is a powerful facilitator in allowing us to carry out this urgent work in a sustainable way.

However, urgency culture is system-serving and self-serving. It's the intentional, artificial application to non-urgent work that distracts, overwhelms, and burns us out.

Though the nonprofit sector is itself a response to the social and environmental issues that require urgent work, it’s not sheltered from the influences of capitalism and urgency culture.

Urgency shows up in our organizations in subtle yet entrenched ways of working. Here’s a few examples and how to identify it:

1. Perfectionism: It Has to be “Right”

In a capitalist society, we’ve been taught that mistakes are reflective of our worth. With our perceived value under threat, we feel a burden to deliver perfect work (which is objectively impossible).

Perfectionism can look like competitiveness, fear of negative feedback, being overly protective of our work, not asking questions or seeking guidance, and only delivering work when we believe it’s in its final form. Perfectionist behaviour contributes to urgency culture when we hold something so closely until we determine it’s “just right” to share. This interrupts the flow of work and doesn’t often provide lead time for next steps, leaving teams scrambling as urgency is effectively passed along.

It takes practice to let go of these behaviours. Some questions we can pose to ourselves when we feel the internal pressures are: Am I concerned about what others will think of me? How am I internalizing colonial ideologies and what do I need to unpack? What questions haven’t I asked that will provide clarity and comfort to move forward? Are there real implications of handing the work over or is it “good enough”?

2. Information Hoarding: The “Need to Know” Basis

Information is a form of power, and how we control and distribute it affects organizational planning and trust. By withholding information (which can be anything that others need to move forward with their work), we are inadvertently making decisions for others. When work, activities, and information are communicated selectively or late, there’s less space for inclusion, generative ideas, and iterations to the process — all of which lead to a sense of urgency.

Operating with a scarcity mindset and under a “Need to know” basis creates silos and reinforces the traditional hierarchy — that of white supremacy.

Some questions to reflect on are: Am I making assumptions about the amount of time it takes to complete tasks? Am I making assumptions about my team’s workload, capacity, and ability? Am I aware of and comfortable with the choices I am making for others?

3. “I’m the Only One” Mentality

In the nonprofit sector, we serve community. But we’re also conditioned to work in ways that highlight our own contributions, as white supremacy culture promotes the desire for individual accreditations.

The mentality of “I’m on the Only One” can show up individually or organizationally, but both affect the entire team. It leads to urgency culture when we believe the idea that I’m the only one who can do the job. I’m the best person to lead this activity. My organization is best suited to hold this project. This microcosm of saviorist behaviour steamrolls Rest when we make busyness for ourselves, taking on too much and struggling with handing over work. This can result in urgency across teams when we ask for help too late, delegate the “less visible” work to others, or overstep roles to produce something quickly when team members aren’t reacting to our urgent pace.

There are often shiny projects that could result in public praise but before taking on extra activities, we should ask: Am I the only one who can do this? Does my organization need to do this work? Is there a more collaborative, ethical way to share the work?

4. Where’s the Line: Blurring Boundaries

When we have fallen into the trap of urgency culture, our heightened pace of working becomes the default. For those who hold traditional power, it becomes easier to demand this same urgent pace from teams despite differences in workloads, roles, abilities, and individual experiences.

We more readily dismiss Rest and challenge boundaries because we’ve generated the acceptable standard of performance. We send those emails and make those calls outside working hours, expecting expeditious communications. We underestimate the time and energy it takes for others to do their work. We often create narratives that confirm our biases and negative stereotypes when others aren’t performing to our urgency fueled levels - they don’t care about the work, they’re not productive, etc.

To help pull ourselves away from colonial ways of being and working when we feel the urgency creep, we can reflect on the following: Have I forced my priority onto the rest of the team, and is that fair? Am I checking my assumptions and extending grace to others? What do I need to let go of to respect boundaries?

5. Feedback is Scarce and Punitive

The rapid pace of urgency doesn’t lend well to an organizational culture of growth and learning. Instead of prioritizing coaching and mentoring, errors are attributed to individual flaws and feedback becomes scarce and punitive. People are less likely to seek feedback when it’s delivered without care, respect, and in the absence of a development plan.

These competitive workplaces foster defensiveness, individualism, perfectionism, and a fear of experimentation. When we don’t build spaciousness into our operating rhythms and instead jump from one project to another, old patterns and cycles continue. The generative nature of reflection and Rest allows us to debrief constructively, learn, and grow forward.

Before delving into a new or sidelined project, it’s important to ask: Am I prioritizing space to reflect, collect learning moments, and share generously? How will I give myself and others permission to take this time? Am I in a healthy space to give feedback respectfully and to receive feedback graciously?

Organizations aren’t naturally constructed to promote rest, collaboration, flow of information, reflective time, and power-sharing.

Our systems aren’t designed to center and value people – we must actively choose to every day. It takes great appreciation, self-leadership, and care to critique the ways in which we perpetuate urgency culture in ourselves and our teams.

Lydia Phillip (she/her)

A published writer and researcher, Lydia has been purposeful about building a communications career where storytelling, advocacy, and education meets social impact. She has been recognized nationally for her leadership, anti-racist initiatives, and her work towards gender equality. Lydia is passionate about using her voice to inspire new ways of being together, to disrupt oppressive colonial systems, and to help create a just future. Lydia has the privilege of living on the land near water in Mi’kma’ki, the unceded territory of the Mi’kmaw People.

Visit Lydia on LinkedIn.

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