“I’m too busy.”

Im-too-busy How are you communicating priorities to avoid the excuses?

A common theme we’ve noticed in our leadership and business coaching practice over the last year is the many variations of the title phrase becoming a more and more frequent response to workplace requests for assistance, coordination, or action. Unfortunately, it yields more frustration than not which is why we see an opportunity to dig in behind the expression and see what is really being said.

The first thing we need to agree on is that it is a meaningless statement. Basically, it is a stall or an excuse to not engage. We equate it to the common expression that sounds like, “I didn’t have time to do, act, respond, etc.” In truth, the correct response is that they did not make the time to do, act, respond, etc. because they had other priorities, whether correctly or incorrectly created, that they attended to. In truth. everyone has the same 24 hours in a day, so no-one has more time. They either make time for a specific action or they don’t.

In a similar vein, being too busy implies they are the only ones that are busy, overwhelmed, burned out or whatever is happening to them at the time. If everyone is busy doing what they do, then attempting to differentiate one’s set of circumstances by saying they are too busy is essentially a meaningless statement.

That is not to say there is a real intent to communicate behind the statement because there is. In this edition, we will explore some alternative approaches to “I’m too busy” that can mitigate the frustration when others hear it and quickly get to a meaningful exchange.

  • I’m too busy ~ what it likely really means is there is no more time in the day or week to do what the leader is asking the person to do. When that is the case, the better response to the leader is to be honest and say their current priorities have locked up available time between now and the requested deadline of the new ask. However, if the new ask is more important than current priorities, a conversation around re-prioritizing the current list becomes the focus!
  • I’m too busy ~ what it can also mean is the person doesn’t want to do what the leader is requesting of them, even before the actual ask. This could be for several reasons ranging from the person may simply not trust the leader to the person not being sure they can do what is being asked and doesn’t want to be exposed. In this case the leader needs to simply ask to clarify why the person cannot respond to the request to get a “ground truth” understanding of why it cannot be done. The resulting conversation can then move the leader to an outcome that makes the most sense for all concerned!
  • I’m too busy ~ lastly, this could simply be an excuse for something that was previously committed to and did not get done. The danger here is if the leader lets the person off the hook with this excuse. We wrote about the difference between an excuse and a reason earlier. The more this excuse is accepted the more it will be used. The leader simply asks clarifying questions to understand where the priority was derailed and re-prioritize to a mutually beneficial outcome!

Everyone is busy in the new reality leaders currently find themselves in. While we focused on the leader in these scenarios as the person hearing the excuse, we also recognize the leaders themselves are many times guilty of using the excuse. Clearly this does not set the right example for their teams as they will model the behavior they see in their leaders.

The key issue in all of this is the ability to effectively prioritize and communicate the priorities to the team. The priorities will more than likely change over time as the business continues to evolve and adapt to the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) business environment. The resulting communications can only be effective when real reasons are the grounds for progress and not clouded by excuses like, “I’m too busy”!

How are you communicating priorities to avoid the excuses? If you don’t know, we can help!

Lead Well!

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Friday, 30 September 2022