by Maura Thomas
We know that controlling what we pay attention to is the key to living an intentional life. According to an informal poll of my clients, one of the biggest impediments to attention management is “O.P.P.” — other people’s problems. This is a particular problem for my clients in leadership who find it difficult to disconnect from their team, even for short periods. The primary reasons they give for this constant availability are that they “don’t want to be the bottleneck that holds up important work,” and they want to be available to make decisions and mentor their staff through problems.
So in this article, I want to take a deeper dive into learning to control your environment. When leaders’ time is constantly in demand from staff, they report they have too little time remaining to engage in what might be their most important role — “reflective thinking time.” This is time to look ahead, consider different paths, play out different scenarios, and generally be visionaries for the organization. And even worse, the constant distraction undermines their very capacity for being reflective, by eroding their attention span and crowding out “slow thinking” with “fast thinking.”
How can leaders create the time and space to think and get important work done, while still being mentors and enabling the team to keep their work moving forward? I arm my clients with four strategies that help them find this balance.
Mentor in hindsight. Mentoring is an important role of leadership and helps to groom employees to advance within the organization. However, they learn much less when advice is given on the front end than they do when they have the opportunity to experience their own successes and failures and discuss them with their boss later.
Try opening scheduled discussions with staff by saying, “What problems or challenges did you face this week, and how did you deal with them? … And how well did that work out for you?”
If you’re concerned about how team members can identify what kinds of issues they can solve on their own and what they should bring to you, consider the next strategy.
Create boundaries for decision-making. Sometimes, it’s hard for employees to determine what they should handle on their own and what is outside the scope of their responsibilities. This problem is alleviated when all employees know exactly what their ultimate role in the company is and when it’s acceptable for them to make mistakes within that role.
An added benefit of this clarity is creative thinking in unusual circumstances that can’t be predicted. For example, Zappos customer service staff know that their ultimate role is to create a WOW experience for their customers, and when they make decisions based on that motivation, they’ll be praised and not scolded. An example of this is the legendary customer service of Zappos that results in things like flower delivery and pizza research, but also generates free press, loyal customers, and organizational success.
Have regular meetings with direct reports and designated times for others. Your team will want time with you, and you should be available to them, for mentoring and other reasons. This is where the philosophy of an “open door policy” originated. The mistake frequently made is that this is often interpreted as “open all the time.” The original intent is to have times when you are accessible to your staff, but not necessarily any time, all the time.
Instead, reliably dedicate time on your calendar every week for each of your direct reports. If they feel empowered to make decisions on their own, and they understand how far their responsibilities extend and what they need your help for, they will then be more likely to hold their questions and issues to discuss at your weekly meeting. This not only empowers them, it also results in you being interrupted less often.
If you’re in senior leadership, and your organization isn’t too large to logically prohibit this, you should also dedicate time to interact with those who have one or more layers of managers in between you and them. This could be done using “office hours,” where you designate some time periodically when you are available for “drop-ins.” It’s good for morale and engagement when employees feel like they have (reasonable) access to “their boss’s boss.” Or if you want more control over their access to you, another way to do this is via “management by walking around.”
Be available less often. Think of those times when you’ve been working but away from your email for extended periods, like while you are attending an off-site meeting or conference. And when you get back to it, you’ve likely had a series of emails from one or more members of your team in a progression similar to this:
- (Oldest message) “Hey boss, I know you’re out of the office today but we’re having this issue we’d like to discuss with you…”
- (Next message) “I guess you’re still tied up but if you can squeeze in a minute to call the office…”
- (Last message) “Never mind, we figured it out…”
The lesson here is that if the boss is unavailable more often, the team figures things out on their own more often. This allows them to grow in their positions, and it minimizes the interruptions the leaders face.
This situation illuminates other problems (besides distraction) that arise when leaders are “too available” to the team. For example, when staff is constantly bringing questions and problems to the boss, and the boss provides answers and solutions, this can create the unintentional consequence of the team becoming disempowered (or lazy). It reinforces the behavior loop of “questions/problems arise; I bring them to my boss; my boss provides answers/solutions.” This can suggest to the team, “These problems are beyond the scope of your responsibilities, and so you are correct in bringing them to me,” even when this really isn’t the case.
If, instead, the boss rebuffs the interruption with some variation of, “I trust your judgment,” then the team will feel empowered and will grow in their positions — and ultimately interrupt the bossless.
Now, at this point when I’m delivering a leadership session, someone in the audience invariably interjects, “I think you’re right; that’s why I tell my team, “don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions!” My response is that if your staff has identified a problem and has the solution, why do they need to come to you at all? Let them deal with the issue on their own, and then “mentor in hindsight.”
For leaders to effectively manage attention, you need to be able to balance interruptions with availability to your team. Employing these four strategies is a step on the path to the ultimate goal of attention management: the opportunity to achieve more of the results that are significant to you, and also have undistracted thinking time so that you can be the visionary thinker that your leadership position demands.