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"Busy" is not a badge of honor

August 31, 2017 Article 2 min read
Here’s why telling others you’re “busy” may not be the best idea — and one idea for how to make busy better. 

A crowd of people walking up and down stairs.

When I used to ask a partner or staff member, “How are you doing?” I’d typically get “Good” or “Can’t complain” as a reaction. More and more lately, people are responding with a different reply: “Busy.”

And I’m sure they are; the pace of business only continues to increase, and the information available to consume continues to multiply. It can be overwhelming. But whereas these people tend to view “busy” as a badge of honor — a positive indicator of how hard they work — what they don’t realize is that, when they say they’re “busy,” it also sends two other, probably unintentional, messages: “Don’t give me any additional work,” or — even worse, “Go away and leave me alone.” It shuts down communication and, in a client situation, all but ensures they’re not going to refer you others; after all, they’re probably thinking, “I hope they’re not too busy to look after my engagement.”

The other day, a client said to me, “Boy, you must be so busy,” and I said, “I’m good busy; I’m having fun. And given the great team we have at Plante Moran, there’s always room for more.” I try to turn it into a positive while, at the same time, making it apparent that I’m happy to take on more work and welcome those opportunities.

But, what if someone isn’t “good busy”? What if they’re really struggling? At that point, I recommend that they take a look at their “bottom 20 percent.”

As a young partner, there was a point when I realized that I wasn’t getting to the tasks I wanted to do — important things like practice development and plain old strategic thinking. To find out why, I sat down and analyzed how I spent my days. Appallingly, I found that about 20 percent of what I was doing could have and should have been done by someone else on my team. I was hesitant to delegate, though, as they were really busy, too. But, then, it occurred to me — they, too, likely had that 20 percent. I met with my team, and I was right. This process had a cascading effect that not only freed up time at each level to focus on things to make the firm more successful but also provided opportunities to staff at lower levels to grow and develop. Things that were old and boring for me were new and exciting for someone else — and we were able to make sure that everyone on the team was working at their highest and best use.

Since the pace of business is not going too slow, we’re all going to continue to be busy. But it’s important to set the right example in addressing it. So the next time someone asks, “How are you doing?” resist the urge to tell them how busy you are and, instead, consider telling them about the exciting things keeping you busy. You’ll be surprised at how it changes the tone of a conversation.

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