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Why Focus is a Foundational Skill for Emotional & Social Intelligence

“Directing attention toward where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership.”  – Dan Goleman

Our ability to focus is under siege now, more than at any time in recorded history. The level of distraction through technology and social communication is unprecedented – and not just for millennials. It is imperative for leaders to grasp the fundamental importance of directing focus where it needs to go.

Focus paves the way for the development of Emotional Intelligence.

Focus is a foundational skill for emotional and social intelligence. Without it we are distracted, directionless, and disconnected from the world around us. This has deep implications for leadership. Indeed, the ability to listen, and pay attention meaningfully is critical to nearly every metric that matters in the workplace.

Cumulatively, in the U.S., we check our smartphones more than 9 billion times per day (Deloitte 2017). We reach for our phones, or look at our smart devices in meetings, while waiting in line and even in the middle of a conversation with a colleague.  Much of this behavior is automatic. Everyone understands the pull of attention with the intermittent gratification of a text or tweet – and though we may not fully realize or admit it, we struggle with this at work, and at home.  At times, it can feel hopeless, but it need not.

We can grow the muscle of attention regulation with small daily practices.

Developmental psychologists tell us that our ability to witness our own minds—our thoughts and feelings—resides in networks mainly located in the brain’s executive centers in the prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead. Strong, disruptive emotions, like anger or anxiety, flow from circuitry lower in the brain, the limbic system (the primary structures within the limbic system include the amygdala and hippocampus). The brain’s capacity for “just saying no” to these emotional impulses takes a leap in growth during ages five to seven and increases steadily from there (though it tends to lag a bit in the emotional centers during the teen years).

The ability to be mindful of impulse—to stay focused and ignore distractions—can be enhanced by the right guidance, and by consistent practice. Mindfulness meditation practices are an excellent, always accessible, and free, method to strengthen our focus.

One way to begin to hone your attention is with “micro-practices” of mindfulness, such as by taking a 3-minute breathing space. This short, yet powerful practice offers a quick way to bring our minds purposefully online and strengthen the attention muscle-sort of like doing a mental push up.  Set your timer for 3 minutes if that helps.

 

 

Mindfulness helps cultivate focus, which creates emotional ease and deeper relationships.

The ability to notice where our attention is going, for example, that to recognize we are getting anxious, and to take steps to renew our focus rests on self-awareness. Self-awareness is a key domain of emotional intelligence. Such meta-cognition lets us keep our mind in the state best suited for the task at hand.  Of the many ways of paying attention, two are especially important for self-awareness:

  1. Selective attention lets us focus on one target and ignore everything else.
  2. Open attention lets us take in information widely – in the world around us and the world within us – and pick up subtle cues we otherwise miss.

Why is this important? It matters because being aware of ourselves, others, and the wider world goes offline when we are distracted. With the onslaught of stimulation from devices we need to learn to notice when we are distracted and intentionally remind ourselves to show up and focus. Here. Now.

The full extent of the emotional and financial toll distraction is taking is still not fully understood, but we are seeing early signs that it is devastatingly high. In fact, this month, two big Apple investors came out publicly stating that iPhones and children are a toxic combination. They are asking the company to be more socially responsible by helping parents limit cell phone use with technology settings they can easily activate, to turn phones off, or limit use.

The implication for leaders is clear. It is important to create a working environment that promotes the cultivation of focus.

Leaders can actively support their employees by creating structures and processes within the workplace that encourage mindful use of devices and mindful listening. For example, having people agree to not look at cell phones during meetings, leading a brief breathing space meditation at the beginning of a huddle, or setting guidelines on work emails afterhours and on weekends.

There is clearly great value for organizations who take the lead in helping their people cultivate these skills. Research found that among leaders with multiple strengths in Emotional Self-Awareness, 92% had teams with high energy and high performance.  In sharp contrast, leaders low in Emotional Self-Awareness created negative climates 78% of the time. Great leaders create a positive emotional climate that encourages motivation and extra effort, and they’re the ones with good Emotional Self-Awareness.

References
Deloitte. 2017. 2017 Global Mobile Consumer Survey: U.S. edition. Survey, Deloitte.

Goleman, Daniel. 2013. Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. NY: Harper.

Goleman, Daniel, and Richard Davidson. 2017. Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. New York: Penguin: Avery.

Goleman, Daniel, Richard Davidson , Vanessa Druskat, Richard Boyatzis, and George Kohlrieser. 2017. Emotional Self-Awareness: A Primer. Northampton: Key Step Media.

 

Recommended Reading:

Daniel Goleman’s CD Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence offers a series of guided exercises to help listeners hone their concentration, stay calm and better manage emotions.

The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education provides educators with a solid rationale for incorporating focus-related skill sets in the classroom to help students navigate a fast-paced world of increasing distraction, and to better understand the interconnections between people, ideas, and the planet.

Our new series of primers focuses on the 12 Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, including Emotional Self-Awareness, Adaptability, Influence, Teamwork, and Inspirational Leadership.

The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies – including the author of this article, Ann Flanagan Petry. See the full list of primers by topic, or get the complete collection!

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Is it Worth It? When it’s Time to Question Your Career Ambitions

career
career
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The late New Zealand-based art director, Linds Redding has recently gained notoriety for his brutal rant against the soul-grinding culture of the advertising industry. He started a blog after he was diagnosed with inoperable esophageal cancer. Many of his posts reflected on his career – a rather impressive one in the creative field. Yet despite his accomplishments, he felt it was all a waste of time.

Redding wrote, “It turns out I didn’t actually like my old life nearly as much as I thought I did…Countless late nights and weekends, holidays, birthdays, school recitals and anniversary dinners were willingly sacrificed at the altar of some intangible but infinitely worthy higher cause. This was the con. Convincing myself that there was nowhere I’d rather be was just a coping mechanism. I can see that now. It wasn’t really important. Or of any consequence at all really. How could it be? We were just shifting product. Our product, and the clients. Just meeting the quota.”

Could that have been his understandably stark end-of-life perspective, or a legitimate warning to all who put pleasing the client and the company before their own wellbeing? And is this exclusive to the advertising industry?

Pushing yourself – or others – past their limits isn’t sustainable. Burnout, resentment, and backstabbing are common symptoms of work cultures that expect everyone work at a break-neck pace. But some of the most successful organizations recognize that productivity, profits and personal fulfillment are intertwined. Such a corporate mindset is often identified as “good work.”

Multiple Intelligences author, Howard Gardner defines good work as a combination of the three Es: excellence, ethics, and engagement. When what we do becomes good work, we love what we do at every level: we feel competent, happy, and that our efforts have meaning.

[PODCAST: What is Good Work?]

How Can Leaders Create a Culture of Good Work?

Creating a workplace that embraces the good work concept must start from the top. When Daniel Goleman spoke with Gardner in his Leadership: A Master Class video series, he asked him: What would a business leader look like who exemplified good work? Here’s an excerpt from their discussion.

Gardner: A business leader who exemplified good work is somebody who understood himself or herself, understood the corporation or company that they were in very well, knew something about their history, understood the domain and had some sense of the mega-trends going on in the world. You cannot be an excellent leader unless you’ve thought about this kind of knowledge, so that’s excellence.

Engaged means they really love their work. They want to do it. Their energy crystallizes other people, and the other people on their team love them and want to be with them. Charisma doesn’t hurt, but you ought to be able to inspire people even if you’re not charismatic, because of the way you behave.

And a person doing good work is someone who is always trying to do the right thing. The right thing, of course, involves the self, and it involves the company. But if it’s only about advancing the company, then it cannot be ethical. There are many things we could do to advance the company that are bad for the company in the long run, or bad for society.

Goleman: Well, I think I need to push back a little. Did I hear you say that you can’t be a good leader if all you care about is promoting the company?

Gardner: Of course you need to promote the company, otherwise you shouldn’t be the leader. But if you’re promoting the company at all costs, you’re not thinking about how the workers are being affected, what happens to the company in the long run, what are the externalities. If you’re not thinking about the people that might be hurt by what you do, then you certainly would not be an ethical leader, and it’s a continuing conversation. You never get to be ethical or not. There’s always an effort to try to figure out what is the right thing in the broader picture, and whom we respect over the long run.

Don’t Wait to Make a Change

If you find yourself in an organization or an industry that puts profit over people – and don’t know how to transition out of it – consider Gardner’s tips on developing a career using the good work model as a guide.

Decide what you really would like to spend your life doing. According to Howard, this is much more important than deciding what particular job to hold, as the employment landscape changes so quickly. Let’s say you went into journalism with plans to work for a newspaper or magazine. Those outlets may not exist in their traditional forms now, but you still might want to write about interesting things. You want to investigate and talk to people. So you have to say “Where could I carry that out?” and be very, very flexible about the venue and the milieu, but not flexible about what you really get a kick out of and where you excel.

Think about people whom you admire and respect. Then think about people whom you don’t want to be like. Consider why you admire certain people and why you’re repelled by others. If you can’t think of people you admire, that’s a warning sign. It’s not necessarily a warning sign about you; it’s a warning sign about the culture around you. Perhaps you’re in a situation where you can’t admire anybody at all, or the people you admire don’t do anything related to what you do.

Consider where you want to work. Then ask yourself, “Is this the kind of place where I can see myself in others and where I can see others in me?” For example: Say you have job offers from both a small startup company you believe in, and a large corporation with a worrisome reputation for treating employees unfairly. You might make five times more money in the latter position, but does that reflect who you are and where you want to be?

If you’re a coach working with people in career transition, help them approach their search through the good work lens by asking them these three questions:

  • How much of what you do now is good work?
  • What could you do to boost that percentage?
  • How could you develop your career to maximize good work?

Additional Resources

Good Work: Aligning Skills and Values

Today’s Leadership Imperative

The Executive Edge: An Insider’s Guide to Outstanding Leadership

Thriving on Change: The Evolving Leader’s Toolkit

The Competency Builder

The Coaching Program