Focusing on what’s most important for achieving key objectives is challenging in the conditions of constant change. Fires, distracting issues, and ad-hoc challenges abound. It gets even more complicated in the context of meetings, where there are multiple people in the room - as each has the potential to shape the attention of the group with everything they say. If the team in question reports to you, it can be tempting to step in and be directive when attention and focus dissipates during a team meeting - but then this can foster dependence on you to get things done. So how can you develop focus in your team while keeping members empowered?
When I am coaching leaders or teams, I recommend a 2-step approach: build awareness of waning focus, and use inquiry to draw back the attention of the team in an engaging way. Let’s look at each step in turn.
Build awareness of waning focus. Lack of team focus can get expressed in 2 different ways: internally and externally.
By internally, I mean you might notice it trigger some reaction in yourself. When team focus starts to wane, what internal reactions can provide you clues? Many leaders report some frustration, annoyance, or even mild anger when there are digressions in important meetings. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice some physical sensation that precedes your reaction. For example, you might notice a tension or constriction of muscles in the forehead, perhaps in the shoulders, or maybe a surge of feeling in the hands. You might notice a habit of movement - perhaps you start tapping your foot on the floor or fingers on the table. These are indicators in you that are reflective of what’s going on in the room. The more you can become aware of them, the more you can take skillful action to help support the team when digressions or distractions arise - rather than rush to intervene.
By externally, I mean you might see visible signs of it in the room. Every team shows some external indicators - in the form of habits of thinking or other behaviors - that are observable signs of digression or inattentiveness. For example, maybe a discussion becomes stagnant, where movement ceases and the conversation turns around and around on an issue. Another cue might be when a team member prefaces a comment with a statement of digression or change in topic - for example, “we should talk about…” or “I know this is a bit off-topic, but…”. What are the common indicators of an impending digression on the team, and how do team members react? What are the rules of engagement when this happens? Get to know these indicators and habits - and you can help the team notice and act on them more skillfully. Let’s turn to that next.
Use inquiry to draw back team attention. It can be tempting as a leader to intervene by directing a team to stay on the agenda, but this weakens the team’s self-awareness and empowerment. In your absence, they’ll be less likely to notice ineffective uses of time early enough, and take action to stay focused on top objectives in each meeting. A more effective approach is to interject in such a way as to develop team awareness and engagement - in other words, to help the team self-regulate.
Inquiry is an ideal way to do this. Ask a question to direct the attention of the team, and invite them to act on this awareness. For example, you might say, “Sandra, it sounds like you’d like to discuss this issue in more detail even though it’s a little off our agenda. What do we want to do about that?” A related approach is to make an observation on the team dynamic around the digression and invite action. For example, you might observe: “we seem to be talking in circles on this issue. How do we move forward?” Notice in both approaches that we aren’t proposing a solution. As a leader, we are inviting the team to decide - and we are also subtly modeling that focus is something to protect and cultivate in meetings, so someone needs to take action. Shout-outs and kudos to other team members when they play this role help to reinforce this message.
By building awareness of waning focus, and using inquiry to help team members see and act on it, you can help the team strengthen its capacity for sustained attention. This is critical for achieving results that matter - and doing so in a sustainable way that will achieve greater impact toward your most important objectives.
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