The Great Pretenders: Why Looking Busy is Such a Problem

There is often an unspoken understanding that it's acceptable to goof off, so long as you don't appear to be doing so.


Jack is staring at the computer screen. It has been two hours and he’s made no progress. He’d be more productive if he walked down to the corner for a cup of coffee, but Jack is determined to stick it out.

He is pretending to work.

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Carlos hates completing his monthly sales reports. He’ll seize anything that will give him an excuse to avoid doing them. He’s out on his second “client follow-up” meeting of the morning. The clients will be surprised to see him because he visited them last week.

Carlos is pretending to work.

There are various ways in which we go through the motions. Many of us work in bursts and not in a smooth, continuous flow. The downtime between real action is often filled with quasi-work; behavior that resembles work but which has little likelihood of producing results.

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Jack and Carlos may fear not appearing to be busy. (Their supervisors, in turn, may worry that if Jack and Carlos don’t appear to be busy, then others may get the impression that supervision is lax.) There is an unspoken understanding in many workplaces that it is acceptable to goof off, just so you do not appear to be doing so. Unfortunately, the phony goofing off probably produces less of a genuine recovery than real goofing off. Jack would get more out of a walk to the coffee shop than fiddling around at his desk.

There is, however, another form of pretending that can be far more harmful than the actions of Jack and Carlos. Mary has had a problem with the performance of two of her employees. Rather than sitting down with them to discuss the matter, she has sent out a memo to her entire staff, addressing the problem in general terms. She has no serious expectation that the memo will do any good.

She too is pretending to work.

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Mary’s conduct could be driven by a fear of confrontation. She has constructed an alibi to show that something has been done, when nothing–other than fueling the office rumor mill as people speculate about the reasons for the memo--has been accomplished.

If we are to work effectively, it is important to know when we are not doing so. There are real benefits in taking time to goof off. There are even greater ones in refusing to take fake action.

Michael Wade writes, an eclectic combination of management advice, observations, and links. A partner with the Phoenix firm of Sanders Wade Rodarte Consulting Inc., he has advised private and public-sector organizations for more than 30 years.


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