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The Gift of Presence

3 Leadership benefits from avoiding multi-tasking - and how to get them

Picture of a grey and white striped box with a lid that's wrapped with a deep crimson bow in the corner representing a carefully wrapped gift of a business leader's presence.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

A colleague recently posted his thoughts on the 1999 HBR article: The Human Moment at Work. It is still a fascinating article for lots of reasons. The thing that stood out most to me was this:

The human moment has two prerequisites: people’s physical presence and their emotional and intellectual attention.

There’s a lot to be said about both prerequisites. For this post, we’ll focus on attention first.

• • •

Here’s a perfect example from an experience that happened to me.

I was talking to someone between sessions at a training event. We were having a great conversation. Then…

Buzz. Buzz.

The siren song of new information. The lure of something they just couldn’t miss. Thumbs flying, the other side of the “conversation” was reduced to “uh-huh” and “hmm”. So I stopped talking. After an awkward “yeah”, they looked me in the eye and said:

“Go ahead, I’m listening.”

Most people would be tempted to just pick up where they left off. 

Not me. I asked “what’s the last thing you heard me say?”

They were surprised to learn it was the thing I said right as they pulled out their phone.

• • •

When was the last time you were in a meeting and NOBODY was looking at their computer? Or their tablet? Or a phone?

Most people can’t remember a recent time that happened.

We’re all so busy.

  • The list of people who need “just a couple minutes” is endless.

  • Our unread message badges increase faster than a stock ticker update.

  • And the number of meetings?

I’m good at multi-tasking. I can be here AND take care of my message backlog.

And there’s the trap.

• • •

The benefits of managing communications interference

One of the biggest sources of interference in communication is distraction.

Thankfully, it is also one of the easiest interference breakdowns to fix.

What would it take for you to close your laptop, silence your phone, and disable notifications — if even for a short time?

Consider these 3 benefits:

  • Leaders who commit to looking directly at people (physically or via webcam) when they talk are seen as compassionate.

  • Leaders who ask relevant questions based on what they’re hearing are considered engaged, interested, and good listeners.

  • People who feel connected with their leaders are more engaged and deliver higher quality results more quickly.

The gift of emotional presence is a key to connection. And connection leads to results.

• • •

Multi-tasking doesn’t actually help you get more done faster

It turns out that being fully present is also a secret to productivity. 

Nordstrom Tech’s Envelope Game video is a great explanation of the difference between single-piece flow and batch processing. The amazing thing is that the envelope game isn’t just about manufacturing.

Each of our projects or activities is like a separate manufacturing line. We need to move the “product” from one end to the other as quickly as possible. 

When we overload our manufacturing plant (in this case, our brain) with multiple manufacturing lines, each line runs more slowly if we, personally, are the key that makes it run.

Multi-tasking is not the same as parallel processing.

If you’ve put a team in place and they are running the entire “project” without your regular involvement, you’ve successfully set up a parallel process. Sure, you’ll be needed from time-to-time but you’ll be able to schedule daily interactions and emergencies will be pretty rare.

By contrast, when you’re required to run from project to project, those “manufacturing lines” will run more slowly — or worse, they’ll stall out until you get there.

• • •

I’ve recently looked at my calendar and my list of personal activities. Simply put, there are too many “projects” for the time I’m willing to give.

What if…

…you created space to be present, by doing fewer things?

To what things should you “no” so you can be highly present for more valuable things? 

What can you delegate to some other (qualified) person so you can set up an effective parallel system that can run mostly or completely on its own?

Will you commit to be present with your attention by ignoring your laptop, tablet, phone, smartwatch, and other things that would distract you?


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