If you look, you can find myriad articles and books in the leadership field about the importance of paying attention. (Try a quick Google search using “paying attention leadership” if you don’t believe me.) Different authors enter the subject through different doors – the focus might be on skillfully managing the constant flow of email that comes at you, or the importance of listening carefully to your team, or the way in which what we pay attention to shapes our brains – but pretty much everybody agrees that it’s important for leaders to pay attention.
What I see less frequently is any guidance on HOW to pay attention. What is attention, and what does it mean, exactly, to use it? How do you cultivate attention in an environment that constantly bombards you with information and change? It turns out that, as with most things, it’s much easier to talk about paying attention than to actually do it.
So, what is attention? Here are some examples of how this word is defined:
From Merriam Webster:
There are elements of all these definitions that I like: the connection between paying attention and taking action; the emphasis on listening; the suggestion that what I’m paying attention to is worthy of care and interest. Here’s my definition, for the purpose of this article:
“Paying attention means to be sufficiently present with a person, an idea, or a situation so that you get the internal and external information you need to decide and act wisely.”
Leadership is, ultimately, about producing results, making some difference in the world. Our results flow from our decisions and actions. And yet, too many of us don’t get crucial information, either from our gut or from the environment around us. We’re not sufficiently present. We’re not paying attention. And the consequence? We make choices that don’t produce the results that we want or are inconsistent with what’s important to us, and we miss opportunities for connection with the people around us. Any leader that consistently misses important information, or who is so distracted that she’s not connected to her team, will not be effective for long.
So, how do you practice? How do you cultivate the art of paying attention? In my experience there are at least four steps.
First, prepare yourself to pay attention. This means deciding to pay attention, setting an intention that you will be present for the next meeting, the next phone call, the next conversation. Then do your best to clear your mind, so that you don’t carry that last tense interaction, or the bad news you just received from your boss, into the next moment. Going for a brief walk, releasing tension with three long exhales, or simply turning your phone off can all help prepare you to pay attention.
Then, direct your attention. Know what it is that you want to pay attention to. For example, in a team meeting do you want to focus on listening carefully to what people are saying? Or do you want to pay attention to the body language of people sitting around the table? Over time, you’ll be able to do both at once, but if you’re prone to distraction it can be very helpful to have a specific point of focus.
(It can be useful in directing your attention to know what typically most grabs your attention. For example, do you tend to notice what’s working well? Or what’s going wrong? Neither is “right,” but most of us have default settings that make it easier to pay attention to some things rather than others, and so get an incomplete picture. If you know what your tendency is, you can purposefully direct your attention toward what you usually overlook.)
Next, sustain your attention. Do your best to keep your attention where you’ve placed it. As paradoxical as it may seem, the heart of sustaining your attention is knowing when you’ve become distracted. Most of the time, we get distracted and don’t notice – before we know it, we’ve missed the last 10 minutes of the meeting thinking about what happened two hours ago. The skill is to notice that we’ve left as soon as possible, and then bring ourselves back. This means consciously choosing to let go of the distraction and re-focus on what’s in front of us.
Finally, live a life that supports you in paying attention. The truth is that we live in a world that invites us NOT to pay attention. Technology, information, the pace of business, our collective addiction to constant stimulation – all conspire to keep us off-balance and constantly distracted. To really cultivate a greater capacity to pay attention requires slowing down occasionally, quieting your body and quieting your mind, and taking care of yourself. Examine your life and see what practices and habits you have that help you do this, and what practices and habits get in the way. Whatever supports you in paying attention, do more of it.
The more you pay attention in your leadership role, the more skilled and effective your choices and action will be. But paying attention is a skill cultivated over time, especially in the fast-paced world we live in. What will you do to practice today?
What about you? What have you learned about paying attention in your career as a leader? How do you cultivate attention in your own life? Please share your comments below!