Almost every leader wants to make more time for strategic thinking. In one surveyof 10,000 senior leaders, 97% of them said that being strategic was the leadership behavior most important to their organization’s success.
And yet in another study, a full 96% of the leaders surveyed said they lacked the time for strategic thinking. Of course, we’re all oppressed with meetings and overwhelmed with emails (an average of 126 per day, according to a Radicati Group analysis).
But leaders presumably could take at least some steps to prioritize what they claim to be an imperative. What could account for such a massive misalignment between their stated goals and their actions?
One issue is the incentives put in place — often unconsciously — by companies. Even for senior professionals, there’s frequently cultural pressure to put in long hours, which researchers have discovered often serve as a proxy for both loyalty and productivity in the modern economy. Research has shown that employees who work more than 50 hours per week earn a 6% premium over their colleagues who work a more regular schedule.
Tethering yourself to your desk may help you power through more emails, but it’s rarely a recipe for innovative strategic thinking. In fact, research reveals that productivity decreases for those who work more than 50 hours per week. What seems to really power creative thinking, according to a Stanford University study, is activities such as taking a short walk, especially outside. But that behavior may well be penalized in a corporate milieu that prizes face time.
Another barrier to strategic thinking may be internal. At least in the United States, research shows, busyness is a sign of social status. As Silvia Bellezza of Columbia Business School and her colleagues put it, “By telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after.” In addition to the very real demands on our schedules, then, there’s also an incentive to lean into the frenzy: It’s a marker of our professional success. Executives may therefore be subconsciously reluctant to give up the self-esteem benefits that being busy confers.
Given these pressures — both internal and external — that push us toward rote busyness and away from strategic thinking, here are three ways individual leaders can fight back and create the white space they need.
First, it’s important to remember that strategic thinking doesn’t necessarily require large amounts of time; it’s not about taking endless sabbaticals or going on leadership retreats. As productivity expert David Allen told me when I interviewed him for my book Stand Out, “You don’t need time to have a good idea, you need space…. It takes zero time to have an innovative idea or to make a decision, but if you don’t have psychic space, those things are not necessarily impossible, but they’re suboptimal.”
Even with limited…