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 individual 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, 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 in close proximity – even complete strangers – pick up each other’s emotions. In the work context, the person who is top in 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 connection, 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.

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, 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 own ideas.

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

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

This article was updated in 2019

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.