Summary: If we only focus our energy and our attention on things that are negative or that distract us from our big objectives, then we will create an environment ripe for failure and frustration.
The other day I was riding my road bike on a narrow country road and something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. I turned my head slightly to see what it was (nothing), only to realize in horror that my bike was now pointed straight for a mailbox.
After I recovered (barely), I began to think about how important it is to remember that wherever I look, that is the direction my body wants to go. Wherever we put our gaze, whether intentionally or not, that becomes our destination.
This is also true for our communication (both internal and external).
The more aware we are of the power of our attention, the easier it is to redirect back to our intentional goal before anything bad can happen. We might even have the discipline to resist the temptation to look away if we understand what we are risking in the process.
This understanding can affect your public speaking, your organizational culture and your personal sense of self. Here are a few examples.
1. Public Speaking
Whenever you give a talk, whether it is to a handful of people or a hall of hundreds, you are going to see all kinds of behavior in the audience. Some of that behavior will be positive and interested:
And some of it might be disinterested or flat out bored:
(maybe even a little hostile?)
The question that you have to ask yourselves as presenters is to whom will you be speaking? Where do you want to put your focus? If you choose to focus on the person who is bored (or who is showing disdain), that is going to affect your nervous system and the way that you talk. Regardless of whether you were giving a bad talk, you can pretty much be assured that you are now.
Without getting into detail about why we do this, try this instead. Just stop looking at them.
Look at the interested people. If there is one person disinterested and everyone else is interested, it’s not you. Stop focusing on that person and you will feel better and your talk will be better.
If everyone looks bored, then it really is you. (Sorry.)
2. Organizational Culture
We can say all we want that we want a culture that is okay with making mistakes, but if leader is focused only on looking back and trying to figure out why a mistake happened and who is to blame for it (rather than refocusing on how to move forward from here), guess what the culture is going to be about? Fear about making mistakes.
(Sure thing, Bob, easy for you to say. You don’t have to talk to the board.)
As leaders we have to be vigilant about where we are looking. Just like the driver of a bus passing a big accident. No matter how badly you want to look, you have to stay focused on the road ahead. As long as you do that, everyone on the bus will come safely with you.
Want a culture that focuses on the solution, not the problem? Turn your gaze toward the goal rather than the obstacle and the people will follow.
3. Personal Sense of Self
This is one of the hardest because the very act of awareness brings into focus all of our negative traits and behaviors. The more we know ourselves, the harder it is to ignore our shortcomings.
The trouble is that when we only look at our shortcomings, that is all that we see. The question that Charlie Brown is asking above is actually not a helpful question. Being aware of bad behavior, a misstep or a lack of knowledge does not imply a lack of worthiness. There is nothing actually “wrong” with anyone, just as there is nothing actually “wrong” with anything in nature.
It is only when we choose to focus on the negative that we begin to doubt ourselves and our ability to accomplish great things. When we choose to fixate on the reasons that we can’t make it or that we aren’t enough, we tend to find plenty of evidence (even if in the big picture the evidence is slight).
While it is important to be aware of it and see it, you can’t stare because you will lose your way. Just as the image of the bus driver seeing the accident but not staring at it helps to deliver the passengers safely, the same can be said of ourselves.
When we focus all our attention at avoiding failure, we end up finding failure.
When we are obsessed with avoiding mistakes, our lives are filled with mistakes.
When we look for examples of our own unworthiness, that is all we will see.
We have to be able to see the whole picture and put our attention on who we want to become and how we will get there, not on all the ways that we fall short every day.
There is nothing simple or easy about this. This takes discipline and willingness to notice the things about ourselves that we do not like, to see the weaknesses and the failures and not to lose sight of the bigger picture.
Where we put our attention matters.
Where we focus our gaze as leaders and as human beings informs our behavior.
And it helps to remember that our bodies tend to follow the direction of our eyes, so stay vigilant and pay attention to what you are looking at:
(because you are probably heading right for it…)