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Real Leaders Don’t Have the Attention Spans of Squirrels

July 16, 2012

How many times have you been talking to your boss when their wireless rings and they grab for it wildly, have a short chat then back to you, only then to be diverted by another call or a co-worker walking in on the conversation to ask a non-related question. The boss obliges, then back to you. But only to suddenly blurt out something non-related such as, “Oh, yeah, would you mind doing up a Powerpoint presentation on project xyz.”

You try to keep the conversation on track since you need your boss to understand an important issue you’re facing with your project. However, he (or she – let’s be fair here) is now checking his email, trying to keep an eye on you to give the impression he’s listening to you.

But you know otherwise.

You’re feeling ignored and getting frustrated. “What the hell is wrong with this guy; he’s my manager and he’s unable to focus because he’s trying to multitask.”

Meet Manager Squirrel, no longer a rare breed in organizations.

Like a true squirrel this type of manager is proliferating in organizations, whether in business or in government. And they’re killing productivity, contributing to the loss of depth in knowledge work and sucking the life out of personal creativity. Remember, we’re supposed to be knowledge workers, supposedly using our brains to make a difference in our organizations’ effectiveness.

It’s actually astounding that any substantial work gets accomplished when people are pulled in all directions because of the craving need for instant responses to questions that are fired at them through email, instant messaging, texts or phone calls. There’s no down-time to think, or what’s been called “strategic white space.” Yet in a brutally competitive world that’s precisely what we need to do.

For those of us leading others, in whatever capacity, there’s a vital need to not only unplug ourselves from time to time to reflect and think, but to also ensure that our team members do the same.

As much as Gen Y and Gen X are connected via the Web, raising the bar on what it means to multitask, the shallowness this form of working brings to the knowledge and creativity arena bodes poorly for the future when it comes to organizations being able to compete globally. Or in the case of government, how public servants engage in deeper policy-related work to address society’s issues.

Having a workforce of squirrels is NOT in the best interests of Canada and the United States when you consider the future.

So the next time one of your staff comes up to you to initiate a conversation, ignore your phone when it rings. Look away from your laptop. Close the lid if you have to. When a rude co-worker tries to butt in, tell her you’ll get back to her. Focus on the person in front of you.

Live in the present.

Take time regularly to reflect and think about from where you’ve come and to where you’re going. What are you learning? What do you need to learn? And what about your team?

And if you’re not a formal leader? Then step up to the plate and initiate the conversation with your teammates and team leader. Show your leadership.

Don’t be a squirrel.


Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson


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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2012 11:10 am

    Jim,
    Great post! Thanks.
    I love your comaprision with a squirrel!

    I’d like to add another behaviour of some “squirrel managers” which drives me cazy.
    They process e-mails during meetings on their laptop or their Smart phone. I hate that.

    If brain research has taught us anything in recent years it is that multi-tasking is neither effective nor efficient. A manager should either process his e-mails, or he can participate in a meeting! But not both at the same time!

    Bernd

    • August 5, 2012 2:40 pm

      Bernd, that’s very true about multitasking and what some new research is finding. You end up with meetings where everyone around the table is surreptitiously peeking under the table at their smart phones, nodding their heads in agreement, yet not understanding the discussion at hand. Bad decisions can result. Of course, I didn’t wade into the extremely poor manners and disrespect this practice produces in the workplace. Thanks for stopping by to read and comment.

  2. July 19, 2012 9:25 am

    Thank goodness I never had ANY managers who acted like this! These sound like young managers under 30 who have never been off of a mobile device in their lives.

    • July 19, 2012 11:58 am

      You’re lucky, Lynne. Manager Squirrels abound in the public sector – and they’re not just Gen Y. I found that Gen X (32-49) have big issues about not being “present” when interacting with their staff. Mobile devices are one big factor, but there’s the bigger issue of multitasking and “serving up” to their bosses (topic for another post). Of course, we Baby Boomers shouldn’t become complacent since we also are guilty.

  3. sooozg permalink
    July 16, 2012 5:29 pm

    I never thought of leadership in terms of attention span. You’re so right though, Jim. Managers need to give focused attention to their workers or the workers will feel frustrated and productivity will decline.

    Managers also need to practice good listening skills. Most of the managers I’ve had loved to hear themselves speak. However, as soon as someone else began to talk, these managers would show via their facial expression and body language that they felt time was being wasted. It was demoralizing to the employees who were made to feel their contributions weren’t of value.

    • July 16, 2012 5:58 pm

      Thanks Susan. If you’re not “present” when interacting with your staff then you’re not practicing leadership. Government is full of manager squirrels. It’s an epidemic requiring a full frontal assault. But it applies to any sector of the economy.

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