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Speed, Accidents, and Anxiety

Speed, Accidents, and Anxiety

You’re driving along the freeway. The traffic is heavy and the weather is bad; there’s water on the road and occasional patches of ice. You’re already late for an appointment and you’re worrying that your boss is going to find out and get mad at you, so you’re driving way too fast for the conditions. Everyone else seems to be in a hurry too. Your hands are gripping the wheel fiercely and you’re concentrating as hard as you can on simply staying on the road. You wish you could slow down, but that doesn’t seem possible, so you’re scared they’ll be an accident any minute with you in it.

Then a huge truck comes up behind you, driving really fast. The driver starts flashing the headlights and blaring the horn for you to go even faster. You put on a little extra speed, but your car feels unstable on the wet road. The truck presses close on the rear of your car, still flashing those lights. All you can see in the mirror is the truck’s radiator, inches from the back of your vehicle. The truck’s horn is still blaring and every time you speed up even a little, that truck is right there pushing you still faster. There’s no let up. The vehicle in front of you is disappearing in spray, there’s another alongside you and now the rain is coming down as well. The slightest problem and you know the resulting accident is going to kill and maim scores of people, including you.

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How do you feel?

Well, that’s just about how many people feel every day at work. They’re being pushed to go faster and faster, until they know that they have no margin of safety. Once an organization gets the idea that making everyone work faster—increasing the pressure and driving people to their limits and beyond—is going to push up productivity and profits, there’s no obvious limit. It’s as if they start by pushing everyone up to 75 mph, then 80 mph, then 100 mph or beyond. Most people don’t have the skill, or inclination, to go at that speed. It’s too scary. But your boss, like the eighteen wheeler in my picture, is on your tail, forcing you to go faster and faster. Someone is going to crash and burn very soon. Maybe that someone is you.

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This brute force approach to productivity is all the rage today. Innovation, creativity, and fresh thinking are all seen as too slow and uncertain. Never mind that they are the only real ways to increase productivity long term, it’s the short-term that matters: meet the target for the next quarterly figures and to hell with anything else.

The result is a workplace culture that’s like driving flat-out on wet slippery roads with traffic all around you. It’s full of reluctant high-speed, high-anxiety drivers under constant pressure to go still faster, with every likelihood of accidents. There’s no let up. because the prevailing organizational attitude is that if you can’t stand the pace, you can just get off the road and make way for someone who can.

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So far as we know, each of us has only one lifetime. To spend it rushing ahead in blind terror, with no time to enjoy the ride, doesn’t seem much of a prospect. Like the driver who knows he or she is going far too fast, you cannot enjoy the journey or look around you to admire the view. Maybe your organization believes that by working this way it will make a little more money next quarter, but if the long-term prospect is being crushed and maimed that hardly seems much compensation. Maybe it’s time for some organizational speed limits to prevent testosterone-fueled bosses from risking everyone else’s necks except their own.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership.

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Last Updated on September 22, 2019

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