Simon Terry

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Ending The Internal War For Attention

Opportunities for distraction are everywhere. Organisations need to stop fighting the war for attention internally. If you need to fight over the attention of your employees you have a performance management problem, not an attention problem.

The War For Attention

We are familiar with the battle for our attention in all aspects of our lives. We are slammed by marketing & communication messages everywhere. The globally connected always-on world means people are now seeking escape from the buzz of demands on their attention. Digital downtime once meant waiting for slow computers. Now people are taking time offline away from the alerts. The volume of and channels for these messages keep increasing. Scott Belsky of Airbnb has described our mobile phone notifications as a tragedy of the commons where excessive use and bad behaviour is devaluing the platform for everyone.

Filtering out the attention grabbers is critical work now for each of us to manage our personal effectiveness.  Making careful choices of tools, their settings and using personal knowledge mastery skills is important for anyone to stay sane, let alone be effective in their lives and work. Importantly, the set of choices that make each individual effective is unique to the individual, their context, and community. The tools and techniques can help individuals to better manage attention and personal effectiveness, but there is no one size that fits all and continuous adaptation is required.

Fighting for Attention Internally

In the paternalistic, hierarchical, and efficiency-oriented culture of organisations, the war for attention is an issue that must be solved centrally with the right set of corporate drains on employee attention. Carefully crafted intranets and corporate communication messages present the central view of what needs to be known. A great deal of time and effort goes into planning, coordinating, preparing and approving the official flow of information inside organisations. Many central functions and middle managers exist to do this work.

Other agile, dynamic and relevant ways of exchanging information are shut down. Technology teams are on the lookout for new tools to blacklist. Employees are often prohibited from using more effective ways of interacting to ensure that messages go through the ‘right channels’, often people or choke points in the power structure.  This desire for control is  presented as being in the best interest of employees – minimising distraction, time-wasting, clutter or confusion in messages. This culture of seeking to manage and control employee attention results in a profusion of “what to use when” guides that can help the novice user but can also become prescriptive barriers to effective work, especially in highly compliant cultures. We don’t need ‘what to use when’ guides in our personal life, Stowe Boyd has highlighted that despite the battle of attention and potential confusion, we can cope with a lot of different tools & channels.

Much of this fight for employee’s attention is unproductive work. Few intranets are highly performing communication platforms despite the investment and enforced lack of competition. Corporate email opening rates aren’t good enough to ensure all the relevant messages are received. Mandatory compliance training is largely counterproductive. Powerpoint isn’t always an effective communication tool.

Most organisations are still more concerned by what their employees don’t know than what they do. Rumours and myths spread effectively because information is so tightly managed. Even if it was possible to turn your organisations systems into a complete information autarky, employees would still look at their own devices. The human community is filling a social vacuum.

We have to ask why organisations want to manage their employees’ attention and why employees resist. For both sides, the fundamental issue traces back to the historical culture of paternalistically determining what work it is efficient for employees to do. If we don’t trust our employees to use their time and attention well, then other more senior people need to decide it for them. Knowledge work does not fit well into these models of productivity inherited from manufacturing. Outputs are not simply determined by inputs. Human network relationships matter. Diversity of ideas is valued over the uniformity of a corporate line.

The problem is not distraction. The problem is the determined effort to centralise and control information that presents relevant information being available at the right time with the right human network filters of trust, relevance, insight and endorsement.  Employees are looking for filters for insight in a dynamic two-way flow of information, not carefully curated and endorse stale stocks of information. Employees are using the wirearchy to fix the problems with the hierarchical control of information.

Focus on Performance Instead

We are managing our employee’s attention to save time and to give them the right information with minimum effort.  Both try to improve the efficiency of their work.

What would happen if we stopped?

The answer has already been provided in organisations. We don’t actually trust that all this effort to manage attention will work. Therefore organisations created performance management programs to place individual accountability on employees to work effectively and achieve their required outcomes.

If the bottom line is performance, shouldn’t organisations invest instead in developing the elements of greater effectiveness in employee performance? Dan Pink has highlighted three elements of motivation & performance: purpose, autonomy, and mastery. We can help leaders in organisations to better lead and manage performance. We can build the capabilities of employees to more effectively use and share information in an environment of high demands on attention, through working out loud and performance management. In this environment, the goal of any work should be enabling employee choices to make work more effective and helping employees to mange the risks and issues of those choices.

Shifting the accountability of the management of information and interactions from the organisation to employees enhances both the people experience and the effectiveness of work.


1 Comment

  1. Tathra says:

    Well put Simon, as always. Feels like the shift from paternal, directive or ‘push’ to a more trusting, empowering ‘pull’ approach.

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