The business of busyness is a contradiction in terms. The more politics forces you to look busy, the less time there is for real business. An old joke to set the tone for this section:

A group of excited young curates crashes into the office of the Archbishop at St. Patrick’s cathedral. “Your Eminence!” one of them cries. “Jesus Christ has just appeared in lower Manhattan!”
“What?!”
“He walked across the water and came ashore in Battery Park.”
“Oh my.”
“And now he’s headed up Fifth Avenue toward St. Patrick’s. He could be here any minute!”
“I see.”
“So, tell us, Eminence, what do we do?”
The Archbishop thinks that over for a moment and finally says, “Look busy.”


An apparent busyness can be a sign of deep and very professional engagement in an important task, vital to the long-term interests of the organization. Or it might be a sign of something else entirely. In a fearful organization it most likely implies a worry that it’s downright unsafe to seem unbusy. The unspoken rule that governs people in this case is:

Look busy.

Of course, the fear itself has already done damage to the organization’s culture. But obedience to the unspoken rule makes the matter worse. The consequences of everyone trying to look busy include:

• No time for reflection
• No time to confer with colleagues (which might be interpreted as “chatting”)
• No time for lunch
• No time for training
• Nobody willing to be away from his/her desk
• No off-site activities
• A general uneasiness with activities that might seem “passive” like reading, and research.


Most of the things that the rule makes impossible are culture positive. That is, they help the culture heal and improve itself. The more you find yourself and your co-workers compelled to look busy, the surer you can be that your working culture is damaged.

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