Are you paying attention?

I recently read two articles that I found interesting – one about the myth of multitasking and the other about emotional contagion. They got me thinking about just how powerful paying attention is as a leadership tool.


The article on multitasking described how biologically we are incapable of attending to multiple tasks – our brains are not wired to do it effectively. When we multitask, we are performing each task poorly. When we are with people and we are “listening” but simultaneously ticking off a to-do list in our head, glancing at our phone, and reading through the paper the person is talking about – we are listening less and less the more we are processing other things. Not only are we devaluing the person by not paying attention, but when we add to the conversation, our thoughts will not be as good as they could be because by multitasking we are not bringing our best intellectual brain to the table.

Emotional contagion

The article on emotional contagion aligned with other studies I have read about how people nearby – even strangers – pick up each other’s emotions. In the work context, the person who is top of the hierarchy is the one whose emotions will prevail. So, when the boss is in a bad mood, the team will be too. When people are in bad moods, creativity and innovation are stifled. By not managing our emotions, we are not bringing our best emotional brain to the table.

Both of these articles were a great reminder about how as leaders, it is important to attend to your intellectual brain and your emotional brain. Your people deserve your best emotional space and your best intellectual involvement.

Paying attention

Great leaders pay attention, to people and their ideas. When people feel truly valued, they will give their best in response. Great leaders create connections, people feel genuinely heard. Finally, great leaders create a “safe” emotional space where people are not protecting themselves but can turn their energy into teamwork and achievement.

Neuroscience and Paying Attention

The human brain is a complex organ, and its ability to pay attention is a fascinating aspect of neuroscience. Attention is a cognitive process that allows us to focus on specific stimuli while ignoring others. It’s a selective mechanism that helps us navigate the world around us.

Neuroscientists have identified two primary types of attention: selective attention and divided attention. Selective attention refers to the ability to focus on a single task or stimulus, while divided attention involves juggling multiple tasks at once. The prefrontal cortex, a region at the front of the brain, plays a crucial role in attention, helping us concentrate and ignore distractions.

Intellectual Attention

Intellectual attention refers to the ability to focus on complex cognitive tasks, such as problem-solving, reading, or learning new information. It’s an essential skill for academic success and lifelong learning. Intellectual attention involves both concentration (the ability to maintain focus on a task over time) and cognitive control (the ability to switch focus when necessary).

Emotional Attention

Emotional attention is the ability to recognize and focus on emotions, whether they’re our own or those of others. It’s a crucial aspect of emotional intelligence, which involves understanding and managing emotions. Paying attention to our emotions can help us navigate social interactions, make decisions, and manage stress.

Spiritual Attention

Spiritual attention involves focusing on the deeper aspects of life and existence. It can involve practices like meditation, prayer, or contemplation. Paying spiritual attention can help us find meaning, connect with something larger than ourselves, and cultivate a sense of peace and well-being.

Practices to Help Pay Attention

Many practices can help improve our ability to pay attention. Mindfulness meditation, for example, trains the brain to focus on the present moment, which can enhance both selective and divided attention. Regular physical exercise can also boost attention by improving brain health. Other strategies include getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy diet, and taking regular breaks during tasks.

What to Do When You Are Unable to Pay Attention

If you’re struggling to pay attention, it’s important to identify the cause. Are you tired, stressed, or distracted? Addressing these issues can often help. If attention problems persist, it may be worth seeking professional help, as they can be a sign of conditions like ADHD or depression. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and certain medications can be effective treatments.

How to Pay Attention When You Are Multi-tasking

While multitasking can sometimes be necessary, it’s important to remember that it can also be detrimental to attention and productivity. The brain isn’t designed to handle multiple tasks simultaneously, and trying to do so can lead to mistakes and decreased efficiency. If you must multitask, try to do so strategically: group similar tasks together, switch between tasks at natural stopping points and avoid multi-tasking with complex tasks that require a lot of focus.

How to Use Your Intuition When Paying Attention

Intuition, or our “gut feeling,” can also play a role in attention. It can guide us towards what’s important and worth our attention. Listening to our intuition requires paying attention to our internal experiences, including physical sensations, emotions, and spontaneous thoughts. While intuition shouldn’t replace rational decision-making, it can complement it, providing valuable insights that we might otherwise overlook.

Things you can do to focus your attention:

1. Mind your mood

Check-in with yourself. Your emotions are contagious, think about what you are trying to create and whether your current mood is useful. If you are not in the greatest headspace, do what it takes to get yourself there. Take a quick walk, listen to music, and get some fresh air.

2. Get focussed

Turn off your phone, blank your computer screen, or leave your office entirely. Don’t multitask when you are with people.

3. Stay Focussed

If you find your attention drifting, bring it back. Mindfulness is a learned skill, so keep practising.

4. Know your limits

Research says that most people can only focus for around 25 minutes, so 30 minutes is ideal for meetings. If your meeting is longer, take a “focus break”, have a mental stretch and then get back to it.

5. Listen actively

Ask questions, paraphrase, explore ideas – but do it gently. Don’t critique, criticise or push your ideas.

Think about your team – are you giving them your best intellectual and emotional attention?

  • About the Author
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Ros Cardinal

Rosalind Cardinal is the Principal Consultant of Shaping Change, a consultancy specialising in improving business outcomes by developing individuals, teams and organisations.
Ros is a solutions and results oriented facilitator and leadership coach, with a career in the Human Resources and Organisational Development field spanning more than 20 years. Ros’ expertise spans leadership development, organisational culture, team building, change and transition management, emotional intelligence, organisational behaviour, employee engagement, strategic direction and management.
Ros is a Certified Member of the Australian Human Resources Institute (CAHRI), a member of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD) and a Professional Member of the Australian Association for Psychological Type (AusAPT). She holds a Graduate Diploma in Human Resources from Deakin University, an Australian Human Resources Institute Professional Diploma in Human Resources and has completed the Australian Graduate School of Management Executive Program, Strategic Human Resource Management.