Are You Really Too Busy?

Fred Mael
Baltimore SmartCEO Magazine, April 2004

Here is a short survey. There are no right answers and you won’t receive a score. Simply write the word yes next to every statement with which you agree.

1. I return unsolicited calls of vendors.
2. I return calls of vendors who I told to call me back at a certain time or told to stay in touch.
3. I respond to “keeping in touch” calls or emails of former coworkers
4. I respond to calls or emails from people I have met at conferences or meetings even though I don’t want anything from them.
5. I respond to unsolicited job requests and unsolicited resumes.
6. I respond to resumes that were sent in response to advertisements and requests for resumes.
7. If I interview someone, and tell him or her that I will get back to him or her within a certain time period, and decided not to hire him or her, I still get back to him or her.
8. If I do not get back to them, and they continue to call or write, I do respond rather than letting them figure out for themselves that I don’t wish to hire them.

As I said, there are no “right” answers. But before we discuss why you answered the way you did, think about this: Do you treat people in the same way that you wish to be treated? If not, why is it different?

The questions in this “survey” are really about how you resolve competing values. On the one hand, you may put value in being considerate and in treating most people with respect. You may also put value in keeping your word when you tell people you will get back to them. On the other hand, you are very busy and you may value completing your work tasks and achieving your goals more than being considerate or keeping your word. How you balance these values will determine the answers you chose. For the manager who sees others as pawns in his move to the top, there are no dilemmas in these questions – but that manager isn’t likely to be reading this type of article.

Reasons to Answer “Yes”

Having laid out the options, what are some of the reasons why you might consider answering “yes” to more of these from now on? Consider these rationales:

The Golden Rule. This principle simply asks you to empathize with the person trying to contact your or waiting to hear from you. How would you feel left dangling by a prospective employer? How do you enjoy being told to call back again and again, interrupting whatever you are doing to try to guess when you will catch the other person unguarded by voice mail? And yet, honorable people can somehow figure out why their situation is different – how they alone are too busy, how they would never nag people with cold calls and try others’ patience. Consider this statement by someone I consider to be an ethical and thoughtful person:

“When I worked inside a large company, I would be called regularly by vendors. I didn’t return their calls because if I did, if I would be busy with them all day. Now that I am a consultant, it really bothers me that potential clients in companies don’t return my calls, especially when they tell me that they’ll get back to me or ask me to call at a certain time. If I ever went back to working for a company, what would I do? I believe that I would go back to not returning vendor calls.”

The Golden Rule may be compelling but it may not always seem applicable to us from our vantage point. We may need more.

What goes around comes around. This principle has an analog called “what goes up comes down”. It bespeaks a fear of retribution, a fear that all those who we have spurned, belittled, or ignored while successfully pursuing our ambitions will be there when we stumble or need a helping hand. Rather than helping, they will visit all our sins upon us and shun us in turn. This is the scenario we are asked to picture: You are living in a nursing home for retired CEOs, sitting forlornly in a wheelchair in the winter sunlight. Suddenly, you are tracked down by a delegation of the “little people” you used to employ (or refused to employ). They proceed to kick you and spit at you, taunting your shrunken, immobilized self to ignore them, or fire them now. The staff steps aside and takes vicarious pleasure from your torture … Perhaps such visualizations will spur some individuals to act differently now – but most successful people don’t think in those terms. What else might tip the scales in favor of more “yes” responses?

Bad PR for the company. Is it possible that the spurned vendors, associates, or applicants are (or will become) successful enough to be vindictive? Could they start telling others not to buy your products, stay in your hotels, or use your services? Perhaps. But somehow, the fact that these people are calling you repeatedly to sell you something or get hired by you makes you feel that they are insignificant people with too much time on their hands. You would rather spend your time making a good impression on people who are more successful than you are than worry about “losers”, so you ignore them.

Reasons to Answer “No”

What about the reverse? What are some good reasons to answer no to more of these questions?

You really are too busy. It’s always possible that you simply have too much to do without returning calls. Some people are almost literally on call and engaged every moment of their workdays, and their workdays go far beyond 40 hours a week. Keep in mind, however, that the extensive research of Dr. John Robinson of University of Maryland has shown that we have more free time than we think we have, we work less than we did 30 years ago, and that people consistently overestimate the time they spend working. Other studies (and an honest look in the mirror) would reveal that a good chunk of the time we spend at work is not exactly work, or is discretionary (meaning, we could choose to do something else instead of equal or greater value). Making and returning those calls, like responding to data requests by HR, often fall to the bottom to pile because they aren’t our priorities, they are unpleasant, or both. If so, what else justifies answering “no” more often than not?

You are hurting others by being nice. If you had endless time, you would certainly call or write every vendor and applicant and even hear out their pitches. But if you do that, you will be unavailable to your employees and your family, who are already complaining about your being inaccessible. If you have to make such choices, better that strangers feel insulted – at least you will be prioritizing the people to who you have standing commitments.

Makes sense for unsolicited calls and emails. But why did you have to tell people you would get back to them, in some cases by a certain date? Couldn’t you just say: “ I’m too busy, assume your services aren’t needed or you aren’t hired unless you hear from me”? The answer could be that you wanted to seem like a “nice guy” (or a female equivalent) at the time. That need took priority over being straight with the people contacting you. Although you value your time, implicitly you assume that people who have time for cold calls or need to find a job have unlimited time to spend sitting by the phone or trying an end-run around your secretary. If they nurtured false hopes because of you, or slacked off on other efforts because of your assurances – that’s their problem. Thus, the only person you were “nice” to was yourself.

Making Choices

If you really are too busy to be considerate, you could at least level with people. You could be explicit about your “don’t call me – I’ll call you” stance, something that headhunters do all the time. In this way, you could satisfy the principles of the Golden Rule while still protecting your time.

Ultimately, there is no “right” answer for each person in every situation. A possible right way to formulate an answer is that you be explicit in your mind about what you value relative to other competing values; that you be upfront about what you value rather than misleading people; and that you find a way within the continuum of your values to treat others with the respect you wish for yourself.

Fred Mael ( is an organizational psychologist who does consulting in areas such as talent retention, organizational culture, and performance management, as well as executive and work/life coaching. This article appeared in the April 2004 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO magazine (