Pretending to be busy makes you look better

Busier doesn't always mean better, but we sure think it does

We love to complain about how busy we are, touting our lack of leisure time like a badge of honor.  According to new research, busyness is actually considered a status symbol, with less time to spare translating into greater prestige. 

Having leisure time was once seen as the height of social status. But that's no longer the case, as we now live in "knowledge-intensive economies," according to Silvia Bellezza, assistant professor of marketing at Columbia University Business School; Neeru Paharia, assistant professor of marketing at Georgetown University; and Anat Keinan, associate professor of marketing at Harvard University Business School. 

As a manager, do you have enough time to actually manage?

"In such economies, individuals who possess the human capital characteristics that employers or clients value (e.g., competence and ambition) are expected to be in high demand and short supply on the job market," the researchers explain. "Thus, by telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after, which enhances our perceived status."

The researchers conducted a series of experiments to gauge the influence of busyness on status. They found that portraying busyness was consistently linked to higher social status in a number of hypothetical scenarios comparing a person who:

  • Has a leisurely lifestyle versus one who works long hours;
  • Orders from a grocery delivery service versus shopping at a control brand store or a high-end store; and
  • Uses a hands-free headset, commonly associated with multitasking, versus wearing a pair of headphones.

"In general, we found that the busy person is perceived as high status, and interestingly, these status attributions are heavily influenced by our own beliefs about social mobility," the authors write. "In other words, the more we believe that one has the opportunity for success based on hard work, the more we tend to think that people who skip leisure and work all the time are of higher standing."

We could all use better stress-management skills

But the busiest workers aren't necessarily the best ones. Managers may be inclined to view their busiest employees as the most valuable, but Bellezza encourages managers to "shift as much as possible their attention to what people are producing, rather than how long they're in the office" (Romm, "Science of Us," New York Magazine, 12/19; McGregor, "On Leadership," Washington Post, 12/20; Bellezza et al., Harvard Business Review, 12/15). 

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