A Coaching Power Tool Created by Alison Rakotonirina
(Career Coach, MADAGASCAR)
A crucial component of self-management and effective SoMo Leadership is the ability to distinguish between Urgent vs. Important.
Every day we must distinguish between what is urgent and what is important. Often what is urgent would be less so, if we’d planned. While other situations that may appear urgent at the moment turn out to be insignificant when considered in the long term.
SOcial-eMOtional Leadership (SoMo Leadership) relies on the idea that leadership is a choice. And that when it comes to leading others, we must always take charge of leading ourselves. Before we can excel at leading anyone else, we must first learn to lead ourselves effectively, prioritizing our actions, and most importantly managing our emotional response to various events.
A crucial component of self-management is the ability to distinguish between that which is urgent and important. In a society with authoritarian and paternalistic roots, an often overlooked and yet essential attribute of an effective leader is one’s ability to identify truly urgent issues, important issues, or not important issues that masquerade as urgent.
Making this distinction allows us the self-awareness and skill to respond instead of reacting. Both urgent and important issues require and deserve a response, while non-important issues may not need any action at all.
Understanding how to identify and categorize is crucial.
In the military, you may find a “quick reaction force” that is specially trained to handle urgent issues. In health care, we have “Emergency Medical Technicians.” At first glance, we may perceive these individuals as “reacting” to an “urgent” situation, but they are responding.
Panic is a reaction. Triage is a trained response. And so, what distinguishes an urgent situation from an important situation? And how do we learn to respond and not react to both urgent and important situations?
Former President Eisenhower is quoted as having told a graduating class:
I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.
As we know, reactions tend to be emotional and based upon our past experiences or our underlying assumptions and beliefs; they are reflexes that in certain situations may serve us, but that in many situations may hold us back as individuals, businesses, leaders, small groups or even society.
Let’s look at some examples of Urgent vs. Important
Natural disasters may require first responders that are trained to handle injuries, illnesses, lack of water or safe situations, clean water, and food. This is emergency relief and while it does require a quick response to provide life-saving aid, this is the type of situation best handled by a trained responder who is empowered to assess the situation and determine when and where to intervene. Such a situation is both urgent and important.
There are situations where one individual may have an emotional reaction to a situation that raises an issue to “urgent” from a physiological or stress response. The question is, is the situation truly urgent? Our natural human tendency towards a negativity bias may cause individuals to assume the worst; however, upon reflection “the worst” is often not the most likely scenario.
If the situation is not a true emergency, the situation may be quite important, but not urgent. Indeed many issues may arise as urgent upon further reflection, may not even be “important,” when upon further look they’ve been determined to be triggered by an underlying belief.
A challenge of self-management and that of leaders is learning to recognize that most situations are not urgent and that an important situation may merit a slow response, which has ideally been planned out ahead of time.
The first step to deciding what is important or urgent is to think about how you think and ask yourself to consider various outcomes. Is your “urgent” categorization an emotional or negativity bias reaction based on an underlying fear or belief?
Can you learn to respond to an “urgent” situation with thoughtfulness? How can you take responsibility for the Urgent vs. Important situations that may arise in your personal or professional life?
There is a clever decision matrix commonly known as the Eisenhower Matrix, which helps people to identify what they need to act on now (do now) versus what is something that requires attention in the future, or that we can get someone else to do.
Is It True?
Ask different questions: If you keep coming up with the same answer, no matter what you try, maybe you need to ask a different question. Be open to learning new information. Talk to the people involved and ask them what is important or meaningful to them.
Listen. Actively listen and learn.
Many people put off important steps and goals, because of an underlying belief (fear). People also react unnecessarily because of an underlying belief (or fear). Awareness is crucial.
Byron Katie’s Four Questions can help you to decide if your response or belief to something is in fact “true” and based on your discovery you may then find clarity in your next actions.
- Is it true?
- Can you know that it’s true?
- How do you react when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
What is urgent/important/not urgent/not important for you in planning your next steps and responding to a situation? This exercise easily adapts itself to start with “Is it urgent?”
- Is it urgent?
- Can I know that it’s urgent?
- How do I react when I believe that thought?
- Who would I be (or how would I respond) without the thought?
The ability to look at our thought process to decide if something is urgent and then determine an appropriate response is immensely empowering. This ability frees both time and mental space for individuals and groups to focus on what is important.
This line of questioning may also have the effect of reducing anxiety or tension in relationships and creating work or home culture that experience increased stability and predictability.
Best Case/Worst Case Scenario
Humans are programmed to have a negativity bias that so easily spirals out of control to the “worst-case scenario.” Perhaps someone is 30-minutes late and we suddenly start to worry they’ve been in a horrible accident. Or our boss calls us in for a last-minute meeting to discuss a recent project and we assume we will be fired! Not only does this type of response cause us stress, but it can cause us to react to an unconfirmed urgent situation, which may result in us taking actions that do not benefit us or those around us.
Best Case / Worst Case scenario is an activity in which we focus on actually identifying the most likely scenario which is generally “somewhere in the middle.”
Whether you do this with yourself (self-coaching) or with a client the first step is to let negativity go wild, and identify the worst-case scenario.
Next, we flip-it and ask what might be the absolute, best case scenario — the stopped and won the lottery winning level situation.
Once we’ve pinpointed the worst and the best, we give them a percentage likelihood each of these events happening out of 100%. Generally speaking, the best case and worst case scenario generally fall into a category of less than 5%.
The wonderful news is thus that the 90% likelihood of just something average happening, such as someone “oversleeping” or “running late” is all that happened! Now, we can go back to doing whatever we were doing before and focus on what is actually “important” vs. a false “urgent.”
This may be a surprising finding on a list of ways to learn more about our Urgent versus Important response; so let’s look at why this is an important piece of the puzzle. Gratitude and appreciation are known to calm or counterbalance a tendency towards scarcity.
Scarcity may show up in a belief that there is not enough food, love, power, money to go around. These types of beliefs increase anxiety and a propensity towards “urgency.”
The “Three Good Things” practice in which we reflect each day on “three good things that we contributed” to happening, helps us to notice in our life the things at the end of the day that “really mattered,” while focusing on what we do have — the actual abundance in our life. The more that we practice gratitude the better we get at responding versus reacting, which then translates into learning to understand implicitly what is urgent versus important.
For example, perhaps, we have an issue with yelling at our kids when they spill food or make a mess. Perhaps today, we responded by calmly guiding our kids to clean up the mess, talking about the importance of planning to prevent accidents. We write in our journal that today instead of reacting to our kids making a mess in anger, we responded by guiding them to act differently next time. Perhaps even we had fun laughing and cleaning up the mess together.
Courage is not the absence of fear, but the act of recognizing what scares us and doing it anyway. some leaders are vulnerable, but appropriately so. Reacting out of fear rarely has a positive outcome; responding to our fear does. Learning to identify and recognize one’s fear and then determine if it is life-threatening or otherwise important is crucial to responding.
cWhen you are passionate about what you do when your work is meaningful to you and or when you’ve invested your sweat and blood in achieving something, the idea of being challenged, ignored, or questioned is scarry. Sometimes our lizard brain or emotional response causes us to respond to an issue as though it is urgent and life-threatening when it is simply scary to our ego or our reputation.
Learning to embrace the possibility of failure as being part of success. Learning to recognize the origins of our fear so that we can respond by stepping into our fears and coming out the other side is liberating. Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather acknowledging our fear, and then choosing how to respond or even choosing to let it go.
Today’s coaches, leaders, and individuals must balance a variety of internal and external influences in our life and work. Many of these issues are the stressors that cause or disrupt our quest for a “work-life” balance.
Learning to leverage the distinction between Urgent and Important is freeing. Practicing this consistently gives us a framework in which to align our long term goals and our values, with opening up new opportunities around howe we manage important and urgent issues, planning for the future and creating awareness around how we as individuals, families, businesses or communities respond to urgent and important issues versus urgent or important or issues.
This practice might help a mother or a father to determine when to cancel a meeting for a family event. Or when to put a work event ahead of a family event.
This practice might help a boss to decide when to terminate an employee on the spot or when to set-aside a time to discuss future expectations.
This practice might help a police officer to decide when to apply deadly force or when to step back and plan for the next steps.
Additional tactics, tools, and techniques that can help build the Urgent vs. Important response.
- Appreciative Inquiry - looking at what is working to help improve what is not working.
- Seeking to understand her own and undercover the ABCs (Activating Event, Belief, Consequence) of her team.
- Compassionate Communication - giving herself and her people the permission to be human; helping people to ask for what they need and to proactively express themselves with care and sincerity, versus fear, frustration, or reactivity.
- Leveraging SMART Goals
- Modeling and teaching: Powerful questioning, Active Listening, and Direct Communication
Supporting the growth of SoMo leaders to effectively distinguish Urgent and Important can serve to bridge the gap between both gender and cultural differences in leadership and decision making from the home to the national level. Teaching and encouraging the use of this method may even encourage more women and individuals from under-represent backgrounds to embrace and nurture their leadership potential. This is so important because it is these individuals who can introduce new ideas and new solutions that can resolve conflict and create a more just and flourishing world.
Alloro, L. (n.d.). Shift Happens: Using Social-Emotional Leadership to Construct Positive, Sustainable Cultural Change. Retrieved June 15, 2020, from https://repository.upenn.edu/mapp_capstone/10/
Brown, Brené (2018-10-08T22:58:59). Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. WholeHearts. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Feltman, Charles. The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work. Thin Book Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Zhivotovskaya, E., MAPP, PCC, ERYT. (2018). Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology Manual.