The most common Leadership Mistake For A Culture Of Attention Management

Larry Margison

Business Coach

Executive Contributor

In my decade of work with senior level executive groups, I’ve learned that the biggest challenges to any team’s productivity often stem from leadership mistakes that inadvertently undermine organizational culture. 

One mistake I see being made over and over again is related to email communication. It’s too common for email to be treated as synchronous (real-time) communication. This stems from a reasonable idea, which is that “being responsive is good customer service.”

But the cost of that approach to customer service is far too high.

The idea that lightening quick responses to incoming emails are necessary is typically conveyed by leadership as an obvious fact, with no thought or explanation about what it means to the bigger picture. I see it translated in my client companies this way: 

“responsive” = “fast”

If fast is good, then “immediate” must be best.

And the result is a culture of immediacy around communication.

Synchronous Email Sabotages Productivity

If your company has adopted these assumptions, the expected email response time in your workplace is probably "the sooner, the better.” 

And that expectation is devastating to productivity. 

Synchronous email communication might feel productive, because every message addressed feels like one less thing you have to do—an imaginary check off your mental to-do list. But email as real-time communication creates unrealistic expectations, because no one can ever answer all emails they receive in real time. Far from being productive, the futile pursuit of synchronous email communication squeezes out the more important work that really provides not only good customer service, but also organizational success. Think about it: no one at your company was hired for how fast they answer emails.

Because this all happens organically, without intention, it’s implemented without consideration to the fact that “good customer service” also means:

 

  • Work done thoughtfully, creatively, and accurately

  • Problems solved

  • Being empathetic with clients and colleagues

  • Being present with them and actively listening to their needs

 

This second set of components of good customer service are all the result of attention management. But attention management and email as synchronous communication are mutually exclusive. 

 

Synchronous Email Sabotages Attention Management

Responding to every message as it arrives (or just “checking” to see if that new message requires an immediate response) means that busy professionals spend a lot of time switching between their important work and monitoring their email. In fact most of my clients (before our work together) have a second computer screen primarily for this purpose. This virtually guarantees that you are rarely or never devoting sustained attention to the important knowledge work you were hired for, that will make your customers happy, and that will power your organization’s success—such as analysis, creativity, problem-solving, relationship-building, and innovation. 

This knowledge work requires what I call “brainpower momentum,” which is a result of our ability to manage our attention. It’s work that takes time to get started, get engaged, and fully mobilize our brainpower to not only be more successful at our jobs, but also to feel fulfilled and satisfied at the end of the day. And our brainpower isn’t only our knowledge, wisdom, and experience, but it’s also our empathy, passion, kindness, diligence and all of the other characteristics we uniquely offer to the world. This unique brainpower of an organization’s employees is collectively its most expensive asset, and its most unique competitive advantage. 

Synchronous email communication means your organization isn’t leveraging its people.

No one can build up that brainpower momentum in three-minute increments between emails. When employees constantly switch between email and other tasks, their other work doesn't just take longer to complete. The quality of that work also suffers, because switching attention every time a new email arrives is distracting.

The first way that synchronous email communication sabotages your team’s performance  is that it squeezes out important work and prevents brainpower momentum. The second way is that it creates a habit of distraction.

Culture that Creates a Habit of Distraction

The need to constantly monitor email essentially guarantees a distraction every few minutes, so distraction becomes a habit. And it’s a habit that gets reinforced every few minutes, so it becomes a really strong habit! When we become habituated to constant distraction, it undermines our attention span and our patience. 

Ask yourself if you have a shorter attention span than you used to, and if you have less patience than you used to. 

If your answers are yes, then not only your ability to create that brainpower momentum is compromised, but so is your desire to engage in it! Weighty, challenging tasks feel too daunting, and like they will take too much time, and so we abandon them for “fast and easy.” This usually means the new message that just arrived, or the ping of the instant message, or the co-worker who dropped by your desk. Add to those endless distractions the meetings that busy professionals attend every day, and it’s easy to see how important work gets squeezed out, and why you might feel like you have too much to do and not enough time to do it.

But in reality the problem is not that you don’t have enough time. It’s that you have too much distraction. That’s why attention management is a more relevant path to productivity than time management. 

If email dominates your team members' days, it's time for a cultural change.

How to Set a Policy on Email Response Times

For employees to be productive, your organization needs a clearly communicated policy on email response time expectations. Leaders need to be intentional and specific about how email should be handled, and how to balance responsiveness with thoughtful work time. And leadership needs to model the desired behaviors.

To be effective, your policy first needs to provide guidance for how to match the medium to the message. For example, many situations are not appropriate for email communication, such as urgent, time-sensitive, and emotionally charged matters. Also, information on shared projects is more appropriate for team collaboration tools instead of email.

Next, your policy should take different job roles into consideration. The customer service team probably needs to be more responsive than the c-level executives. But those team members who are responsible for receiving customer issues and complaints still need time away from receiving the issues in order to thoughtfully solve the issues. 

For the rest of the team, your policy needs to provide “breathing room.” A useful technique can be to have employees add a line to their email signature that reads something like, “Thoughtful work time is important to our success. Therefore, I only check email periodically throughout the day, however if your message is of a more urgent or timely nature, please feel free to…” (This will be different depending on the role, but it could read to…”open a support ticket,” or to “...call the receptionist and have me paged,” or to “...call the 800 number,” for example.)

Employees whose most important job outcomes include creativity and critical thinking need more leeway in their email response times. This includes senior leadership, those in creative roles, and those in detail-oriented roles, like programmers and analysts. When they can be less distracted by email, they will have more opportunity for the sustained, focused time required to do the deep-thinking and visionary work they were hired to do.

Foster a Culture of Attention Management 

When your organization implements an intentional email response time policy that thoughtfully considers what “good customer service” really means, you’ll create a culture that supports your team’s ability to do their best work. It will help them to overcome their habit of distraction, improve their attention span and patience, and engage their “brainpower momentum” in support of high-level knowledge work. In addition, they’ll feel a greater sense of satisfaction and meaning because their days will hold more satisfying accomplishments than the busywork of email. 

 Isn't all of that worth waiting a little longer for a response to your message?

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