5 Signs of “Leading While Distracted”

| | General Leadership

While on the way to catch my plane in San Francisco yesterday I realized I left my cell phone behind. After a moment (or two) of panic I realized this could actually be an interesting experiment. It was.

Throughout the day I noticed I was more interested in and observant of all that was going on around me. I interacted with people more and wondered how many times I have bumped into someone and not even noticed. I wasn’t busy rushing off to a corner to sneak in a quick call or check messages. It was actually a lot more relaxing. I didn’t sit waiting in anticipation during the last few minutes of the flight to turn my phone on the minute the wheels of the plane touched down. Instead I had a great conversation with the person 2 seats over with whom I had barely talked to during the 4 hour flight.

There are More Things to Distract us Now Than Ever Before

While the cell phone can be an incredible tool it is also a terrible distraction. It’s a distraction that can even be deadly. They issue tickets for “driving while distracted”: a poor consolation for the person who got hit. The cell phone is just one of so many distractions we have to deal with throughout the day. Many of us have had to learn to manage an expectation of 24/7 responsiveness. The tools we have to meet that challenge may help make us more efficient, but I am not convinced it makes us more effective.

I would venture to say that we try to do a lot more things while distracted than ever before. The cost in our day to day lives of multi-tasking may not be at the level of life or death. Yet I would like you to consider that the cost could be life or death of another sort. It can cost us the motivation of the people who look to us for leadership slowly blowing out the flame of their passion. It can also cost us mutual trust and respect in our relationships with the people who we count on and who count on us. If you invest just a little more time thinking about this you will likely see many more costs to consider.

5 Signs of Leading While Distracted

Do you or did you ever…

1. Engage in a conversation you have no bandwidth for or interest in at the moment.

2. Listen to the conversation in your head instead of what the other person is saying including that little voice that keeps repeating “I hope they will be done soon”.

3. Get on a conference call and answer e-mails or twitter thinking that since people can’t see you, they won’t know and that it doesn’t really matter anyway.

4. Schedule a meeting and show up unprepared or fail to prepare for someone else’s meeting and show up anyway. (NOTE: A really good reason is not a “free pass”)

5. Allowing a conversation to be interrupted by an electronic device (telephone, computer, blackberry, i-phone, tweetdeck, etc.)

There is No “Good” Excuse for Not Giving Someone Your Full Attention

We can justify these and other distracted behaviors with “well everyone else does it” or “there just aren’t enough hours in a day” or “I’m trying my best”. Those reasons may get us off the hook in our own minds, but there is still a cost to the person/people on the other end. We have all done something like the things in this list. If you are like me you have done every one of them at one time or another. The point is not that we should feel bad about it. We can, however, be more awake so we can be 100% responsible for the impact our actions have on others.

If you are thinking, but I’m not the leader or I hate it when my boss does those things, think again. Anytime people are counting on you is an opportunity to lead, even if it is simply by example. Furthermore, the extent to which we allow others to get away with these behaviors with us harms both our relationship with them and with ourselves. Consider whether the message you are sending through your actions or inaction is one you really want to send.

What is the Solution?

The solution falls into the category of “simple but not always easy”. It is to make a conscious choice to give whomever you are interacting with your full attention. (Hint: The grocery store clerk is NOT less important than your boss in this regard.) It is a choice you have to keep making over and over and in countless situations every day. The hard part can be coming to terms with the cost. The good news is we can definitely get better at it with practice. The better news is we are likely to be grateful for all the things we discover that we have been missing out on.

Perhaps the most significant gift we can give another person in this fast paced world full of distraction is our full attention. It can be just for a moment, but it can make THE difference in whether that interaction has a positive or a negative impact on your relationships and even your results.

What could we all do to get better at giving the gift of our attention?


Enter A Comment

Richard Reeve   |   03 March 2009   |   Reply

I’ve made all of the above mistakes, but thanks goodness it’s possible to learn from error as well as theory. The art of attentiveness is exactly where it is at.

Jay   |   04 March 2009   |   Reply

This reminds me of my biggest peeve. When I go to a restaurant; without fail every table has at least 2 cell phones on it. People sit down, grab their cell phones and put them on the table. Why? What could be so important that you can not give the person you are with your full attention? I never carry my cell when I am with someone- I want them to know that during the time we have together, it is them and me- no distractions. They invented something a while ago in case the cell phone table people missed it- voice mail. It is ok, it can wait- human connection is right now!

kathryn   |   04 March 2009   |   Reply

It’s a struggle at the best of times to be present. It’s something I really have to work at. In this fast-paced busy crazy internet paced environment I dwell in I find it even more challenging. When I worked in the North there was no other alternative but to be present; it was necessary. Maybe we need to remember the necessity of being present. Not just in business but in all aspects of our life. Being present is respectful.Respect for ourselves and others is a necessity. Thnaks for this

Donn   |   04 March 2009   |   Reply

Thank you for reminding me of this. I have been so guilty of it lately and there is no excuse. From today on, I am definitely going to make that conscious effort to give people my full attention and get rid of the distractions.

Jerry Roberts   |   04 March 2009   |   Reply

Everybody is guilty of this. The key is to take this powerful post and do better today — then DON’T FORGET TOMORROW!

Most of us don’t need a lot of additional training. We just need to be reminded of what we already know.

Nice job.

Bruce Carlson   |   04 March 2009   |   Reply

Susan, this is so timely.

We’ve come full circle with now being able to take social networking “on the road” through handheld devices. How ironic. I can now be “present” with somebody on the other side of the planet in virtual social space, while being fragmented for the person I’m sitting next to in real space. It’s downright bizarre.

Multitasking makes for mediocrity. You’ve reminded me that I don’t want mediocrity in my relationships with others. Thanks.

Barry Moltz   |   04 March 2009   |   Reply

Great Article – I always tell people we need to strive for minimal achievement- that is- focus on one thing at a time. We are raising a generation of ADD individuals and multi tasking hurts our productivity and our relationships!

Joe Williams   |   04 March 2009   |   Reply

Wow, super post, Susan. You caught me on #2, didn’t you? Yes, of the five you listed, #2 is the one I do the most. Thank you for all the reminders.

prissyperfection   |   05 March 2009   |   Reply

Great post, Susan. While I don’t use my cell phone very much, there are so many other ways to be distracted as you point out. I am very often guilty of thinking about what I’m going to say to people when they are in the middle of talking to me, which of course means that I’m only half listening in favour of coming up with something “more important” to say when it’s “my turn”.

I strive to do better. Thanks.

Susan Mazza   |   05 March 2009   |   Reply

@RichardReeve Attentiveness truly is an art.

@Jay I confess to being an offender, but recently took on the practice of no cell phones during dinner. It is admittedly a hard habit to break – still feel pulled to be available 24/7.

@Donn, JerryRoberts, Joe & Gwyn We all need reminders don’t we! And as you said Jerry: DON’T FORGET TOMORROW – we need to keep remembering and reminding each other every day.

@Kathryn I think fundamentally this is all about respect. As our ways of interacting change we must be mindful of how we interact with others. No matter what tools we have for communicating, being present will never go out of style!

BTW @JerryRoberts has a great post about respect http://careerjolt.net/new-office-etiquette-ear-buds-and-the-greater-meaning/

@Barry Multitasking does hurt our productivity and our relationships whether we like to admit it or not.

@Bruce your comment “Multitasking makes for mediocrity” seems to sum up a lot of what others are saying here.

A personal observation from today…I was on a few conference calls today and noticed that on one in particular I was strongly feeling compelled to read my e-mail. Had me stop and think about why – the reason is that I wasn’t getting value enough to keep my interest nor was I feeling accountable to anyone on the call. It was a reminder for me to choose to either be on and be totally there or to get off. Perhaps part of breaking the habit starts with our choice of where & when we participate to begin with.

Tom Volkar / Delightful Work   |   08 March 2009   |   Reply

“There is No “Good” Excuse for Not Giving Someone Your Full Attention”

Here, here! And we can add ourselves to this. Giving our own observations of self a blast of full attention is key to a fulfilling life.

You’ve done a fine job of that here!

Heidi   |   08 March 2009   |   Reply

What an amazing and so well written article.

I agree.

Why answer a phone in the middle of a meal that has been scheduled? Not only does it interrupt the flow of conversation for something that is probably just a detail that could be handled via voice mail, it is also inefficient.

Now it is incumbent upon you (in your distracted life) to remember to phone the person back later, as opposed to, when you have a moment to be present to the calls you have to return, being reminded by the voice mail the caller left because you chose NOT to take the call. That…is when you make technology work for you, not distract you.

Thank you again, for a lovely article and a though that needed to be stated, and shared.

~ heidi

Susan Mazza   |   09 March 2009   |   Reply

@TomVolkar Great point – we do need to include ourselves as someone to give our full attention to.

@Heidi Welcome and thank you for your kind comments. It all needs to get handled, but as you point to we can choose the time and place.

Thanks to the US Postal Service I have now been without my phone for a week and have dropped a few balls as I depended on it more than I realized. I am now noticing all the ways it truly does make my life easier – just have to be smart enough to know when, where, and how to use it in service of my relationships and my commitments. This week has been full of lessons learned!

On another note…quite a few people have commented that they are “guilty” of 4/5 or comments to that effect. So I want to say a few quick things about that.

1. It’s only when we can observe a behavior in ourselves that we don’t like that we have access to the choice to change it.

2. That you noticed is NOT a reason for beating yourself up. Instead celebrate your new awareness. It is an opportunity to choose differently going forward and that is really good news.

3. If there is one in particular you want to change ask others to hold you accountable. My husband and daughter are relentless with me when I am distracted with them. I asked them to be and I love them for it. Before then feelings would get hurt, tempers would flare & I would get defensive.

Henie   |   13 March 2009   |   Reply


Had I not been so distracted with multi-tasking (which by the way is not a natural task for our brain), I would not have missed this incredible post! :~)

Enough said!

Being present even without any distractions is a difficult task. Thank you for this reminder!

I can’t recall which company it is, but the CEO put in place a “No email Friday!” The results were incredible! Rather than just emailing…people actually got up, walked down the hall and met for the first time the colleague they’ve been emailing! It’s fostered a more “human” relationship within the company!

“If only our senses behaved enough to truly listen!” ~Henie~

Sandy   |   17 March 2009   |   Reply

Susan –

This is great!

Regarding listening and leadership – have you ever noticed that people who listen really well can move through a coversation quicker? They’re focused, can “hear” the point almost before it’s made and can move the conversation into action very quickly. In my opinion, one quality of a good leader is that they focus on the task at hand, completes it and then moves on!

My husband is constantly coaching me to focus and complete – not multitask. He has a good point – I just haven’t figured out how to do that with 3 kids pulling me in three different directions. I’ll keep striving to focus!