The culture of hurry: the value of ‘free’ work time

4 minute read

In 1973 a study looked into which variables influenced the likelihood to help a person in distress. One variable was the subject: one group had to prepare a talk on a random topic, one group on the parable of the Good Samaritan — helping a person in distress. The other variable was hurry: half of them were told they were late for the talk, half of them were told they had time to get there.

A person not in a hurry may stop and offer help to a person in distress. A person in a hurry is likely to keep going. Ironically, he is likely to keep going even if he is hurrying to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan, thus inadvertently confirming the point of the parable. (Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!)

J.M. Darley, C.D. Batson (1973) “From Jerusalem to Jericho”

The result is quite striking: there was no correlation at all on the subject variable. It didn’t matter if the person was thinking about helping someone in distress, the only thing that mattered was if the person was in a hurry or not:

  • low hurry: 63% helped (almost 2 out of 3 people)
  • medium hurry: 45% helped
  • high hurry: 10% helped (about 1 out of 10 people)

A person in a hurry was 84% less likely to help than one than one that wasn’t under any time pressure.

This experiment might seem very distant to the workplace, yet a lot of companies have among their cultural traits the equivalent of the hurry scenario. It can take different forms, for example:

  • “We value efficiency” is a company culture where efficiency is one of the key elements of management. Time gets measured, people are asked to be productive to a certain % of hours, and managers are evaluated on how well their team time is allocated. This is different from normal level of efficiency: this is a culture focused on this as a primary driver, where the company business isn’t anymore the goal, efficiency itself became the goal.
  • “We’re in an emergency” is a company culture where things are always in a state of emergency, thus, there’s no time to think, we need to do and execute and ship and get to the next thing as quickly as we can. I’d note that temporary emergencies can be good, what I mean here is a culture, not a state: it’s a manager for which everything is a problem that has to be solved yesterday.
  • “We’re passionate” is probably the most deceiving of the bunch, as it tries to cover the exploitation of their people hiding behind a façade of individual motivation. While passion is surely a good thing to have in a company, usually companies that make of this a statement need to be reviewed carefully.

These, and unfortunately more, are all hurry cultures.

One major problem of these companies is that nobody is motivated to help, exactly like the experiment above. The more people are pushed to be in a hurry, hyper-efficient, emergency state, the more they will behave like the experiment: only the rare person will stop and help a colleague. Would you rather work in a company where 2 out of 3 people will help you if you’ve a question or a problem, or a company where 1 out of 10 people do?
Note that often the creativity argument is raised here: give space to be creative allows people to think better solutions and work smarter. This is true: creativity and support add on top of each other. A company where 2 out of 3 people are available to help, is a company that is both more effective and more creative, it’s not one or the other.

The second major problem of these companies is that they are incredibly hard to change. People don’t have the time to think about a different way of doing things, they don’t have time to learn, they can’t see how the change will benefit their rush: they have been working in a system where they have always been in a hurry, and change is definitely not helping them with that.
Hurry cultures thus will have a stronger inertia to change compared to any other company culture. Like the Good Samaritan study, people might all agree that the change proposed is good, and they see the benefits, and they are willing to do it… yet, it won’t happen. The best approach to introduce any change in a hurry culture is to first remove the hurry: change extrinsic and intrinsic goals, change how people are evaluated, change the framework of managers to operate, change processes — only then other changes can be introduced.

This means creating “free work time”. Free work time is time still within the frame of the company, but it’s now available for people to think, reflect, communicate, help others, improve processes, think critically, and so on. Having free work time is better for the company, and healthier for the people.