Leaders and the Gift of Undivided Attention

By: Steven M. Madenberg

Some of us are old enough to remember the immortal words of Charlie Brown’s teacher, who said, “Wah wah. Wah wah wah? Wah wah? Wah wah wah.” It was funny because it was so relatable. Who hasn’t tuned out the droning voice of an authority figure? But what about the experience of Charlie’s teacher, Mrs. Donovan? (Google it—she actually had a name.) Was she aware of how she was coming across? Did she care? Did her inability to penetrate the perfectly spherical heads of her students keep her up at night, or was tenure already a thing back then?

Most of the leaders I work with care deeply about their ability to be heard, to penetrate the fog, to have their words truly resonate. First, they care because they know they cannot be effective unless they are heard. Heard not in the “Wah wah wah” way, but heard in the way their words are intended—in the way the words come together in their own heads.

What I’m starting to become aware of is the emergence of a second, more profound reason for wanting to be heard: being heard means you have managed to connect with another human being—something I’d argue feels like an increasingly vital, and increasingly difficult, accomplishment. This basic need to connect with others is no longer an obvious outcome, or benefit, of being part of an organization.

Most of us try to give our work colleagues our attention. We make that intense, no-blinking eye contact to demonstrate that “hey, make no mistake, I’m reallllly listening to you.” Yet an increasingly large portion of our consciousness is not tuned in to the person across from us. If we honestly pie-charted where our attention lies, we’d have a slice devoted to the person we are “listening to,” a slice devoted to the smartphone notifications that have buzzed into our awareness during the last five minutes, a slice about all the things that listening to this person is preventing us from doing, and a slice about the slice of real pie we want to eat because we got distracted and forgot to have lunch.

One of my favorite pieces of comedy writing imagined the conversations between cavemen—their every utterance either began or ended with some variant of the question, “Seen any predators?"* Their ultimate biological imperative demanded divided attention. Today, I can’t think of any such rationale for divided attention. But there’s been a gradual drift, even in the decade and a half in which I’ve been working with executives, toward just that. We are expected to multi-task. I’m pretty sure it’s partially due to advances in technology, which pull us away from human connection.

It used to be considered good manners, routinely taught by parents, to give someone your full attention when they are speaking to you. Now those same parents are playing Words with Friends and Candy Crush as you try to talk to them about what’s going on at work. “I’m sorry you’re having problems at work, but can you help me figure out how to get all of the different smiley faces on my phone?"** Good luck getting your teenager to pull the earbuds out of their ears when you want their full attention.***

So the workplace has become one of the few remaining domains in which there is the (weakening) expectation of full attention, freely given. On the surface, it’s such a simple behavior. Senior leaders especially need to be able to give their colleagues their full attention. Yet most don’t. Do a quick mental scan of the executives you know best. How many have maintained the ability to give you and others their complete, undivided attention when listening to what you have to say? I’d wager that you have a special place in your heart for the ones who do.

I use the word heart intentionally. The key to becoming a great listener (and a great communicator, but that’s for another blog post) is to recognize that by giving someone your full attention, you are giving them the gift of feeling connected, for a moment, with another person. It is a gift of the heart—a 100% politically correct, HR-approved way to bring your heart into your work.

Even beyond the “soft” benefits of giving yourself and your colleagues the increasingly valuable opportunity for personal connection, there are completely pragmatic reasons for listening with undivided attention. The amount of time wasted and the human error stemming from poor listening are things every leader can validate.

If at the individual level the benefits of paying full attention are meaningful, in aggregate—across a senior enterprise team, for example—it becomes a true competitive advantage. Imagine the benefits to your team if everyone gave each other their complete, undivided attention.

The negative consequences of inattention and distraction, at that same aggregate level, are equally thought provoking. How often in your own experience has a root cause of poor execution been one party not really hearing what another has said? One of the most glaringly obvious characteristics of a weak senior team, immediately apparent to anyone observing that team in action, is that members are not really listening to each other.

I suggest giving it a shot. When a colleague sits down across from you, intentionally give them the gift of your undivided attention. At first it might seem counterintuitive, because you’ll activate a pie slice that is about intentionally giving this person your undivided attention. Let that thought recede as you tune in to the person sitting with you, wanting to be heard. Like most authentic gifts you give, it will come back to you.


*Simon Rich, Free-Range Chickens

**My parents are incredibly generous listeners

***Especially mine


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