Toward Better Sustained Focus
Interruptions happen, but leaders can learn to manage them better
IF YOU ARE a creative high performer, or aspire to be, interruptions are not a trivial matter. They can shipwreck the most ambitious and praiseworthy of plans. This is even harder for those in leading and managing roles.
The impact of interruptions
Productive work requires sustained concentration, creative momentum, and uninterrupted blocks of time. When you’re in the flow, you can produce an enormous amount of quality output.
One simple interruption can bring this all to an abrupt halt. Someone who just needs to ask a couple of questions … an email that needs an urgent reply … some problem your team doesn’t know how to fix: The flow is broken. It might take fifteen minutes to get it back, if it all. Many times, you can’t get it back and you revert to the passive-reactive frame of mind for the rest of the day.
As an executive coach, I run into this everywhere. Most seem to accept this state of affairs as normal. You don’t have to. There are simple strategies you can apply to resist these forces in your pursuit of effectiveness.
To illustrate, let me share the story of one of my coaching clients named Inga.
Trials of a working manager
Inga was Director of Accounting for a medium-sized company. She managed a department of twelve bookkeepers in a large room with no private offices, just cubicles. Like many managers, Inga not only managed the team, she was responsible for producing important work herself.
When we met for a session early in her coaching process, Inga was beside herself. "I can’t get any work done!” she blurted. “All day long, people show up at my space and start talking! I’m trying to concentrate on my own work and not lose my thought while I answer questions. Half the time, I lose it anyway, and it takes me a long time to get back where I was. How can I be expected to work?”
“First of all, I answered, “you are not a helpless victim. You can take action to improve things. But first, we need to understand why this is happening. Why do you think your team is constantly interrupting you?”
“I don’t know!” Inga answered impatiently.
“Well, are they stupid or incompetent?”
“No, they’re actually a pretty good team. All are good people and hard workers.”
“Then let’s figure it out. At least theoretically, why might otherwise smart people feel the need to interrupt their leader?”
Identifying the problem
Inga began to calm down as we went into problem-solving mode. Here are some of the potential reasons we came up with:
Impulsiveness. For whatever reason, her team had developed the habit of acting on impulse. When they felt the impulse to ask a question, they simply went to Inga for the answer, without reflecting on whether the interruption was warranted.
Laziness. Thinking is hard work, and people have an array of work-avoidance techniques. Behavior that is rewarded will be repeated Perhaps they were now conditioned to take the easy way out by asking Inga rather than tracking down or figuring out answers on their own.
Incompetence. While Inga initially did not think this was an issue, we needed to consider whether they did lack sufficient knowledge. Many foolish leaders are happy to be “the best doer in the office,” thereby stifling their team’s potential growth. Perhaps Inga needed to invest time and energy to raise her team’s capabilities.
The reason most leaders don’t think of
“One or more of those reasons might be part of the problem,” I said to Inga. “But there’s another possibility we have to consider. Your people interrupt you all the time because you have trained them to do just that.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Teams need their leader. They have questions to ask, they need direction and clarity, they want assurance that they are accomplishing the right things. That’s not abnormal, that’s normal. However, feeling the pressure to get your own work done, you may have pulled away from them and become less available. You begin avoiding your people, and they chase you down. The more pressured and irritable you become, the more you are inclined to pull away, creating a cycle. Ironically, the more you try to avoid interruptions, the more they interrupt you.
“The bottom line: Your people now believe they must impulsively interrupt you in order to get your attention at all.”
To her credit, Inga sat back and quietly thought for a time. She nodded. “I think that may be the truth,” she said. “But what can I do about it? How can I be available to my team without being constantly interrupted and unable to work? How can I do both?”
Things you can do
Inga and I came up with a simple battle plan that greatly helped her situation. In the years since, I have shared Inga’s story with other clients, and her strategy has helped many.
1. Embrace your entire leadership role
People typically rise to managing roles through being excellent performers. That’s a good thing. The problem is that many of them assume leadership of a team and still think of themselves primarily as performers. When asked to define what functions constitute “the top of their license” (their most important roles and responsibilities), they emphasize areas of personal production and forget to include leadership functions ─ time for their people to develop, unify, inspire, and serve them.
If you are a leader, time for your people is not something you do on the side. It is the essence of what you do.
“Time for your people” does not mean everyone can have your time and attention on demand. It does mean that you embrace your leadership role and recognize that serving your people is among the most important things you do and sculpt your schedule accordingly.
2. Address the issue with your team and create an agreeable plan
Inga held a team meeting and met the issue head-on. “You are a hard-working team and we’re all under pressure to deliver. Needless interruptions are a real hindrance, not only for me, for but you, too. The more we can minimize them, the better it will be for all of us. In my sessions with Tim, I have realized my responsibility to be more available to you. Our challenge is this: How can I be as available to you as necessary while at the same time minimizing needless interruptions? Here’s what I propose:
“I’m going to ask each of you to keep a pad or a folder on your desk labeled ‘Inga questions.’ When you have a question for me and it can wait, write it down. I am making a promise to you that at least twice a day ─ let’s say 10 am and 3 pm ─ I will take an unhurried tour of the office. I will stop by your desk and you can ask me anything you wish. You’ll be able to count on me.”
The team thought it was a good idea and agreed to try it. That still left the predictable problem of questions that can’t wait. They needed another action step.
3. Teach people how to interrupt you
Inga continued. “In real life there will be important questions that can’t wait. If you have to interrupt me, here’s how I’d like you to do it. Come to my cubicle and knock on the door frame. Don’t just start talking. Allow me to finish my thought so I won’t lose it. Wait until I turn and acknowledge you, then you can ask your question. What do you think?”
Once again, the team thought her idea was reasonable and agreed to try.
Between Inga and me there was one further agreement. When someone knocked and she was able to finish her thought, Inga agreed that she would: 1) take her fingers off the keyboard; 2) turn fully in her swivel chair to the person; 3) smile; and 4) say, “How can I help you?”
Further steps were also needed to build a better future: 1) Identifying her most experienced and knowledgeable team members to serve as coleaders and trainers; and 2) investing in more ongoing training to continuously raise the team’s level of work.
Inga knew she had to keep her promises, or her team would revert to their previous behaviors. She was faithful, though, and the improvements held up as they built new habits. The whole team was happier and more productive, and they continued to develop.
The best leaders are intentionally available to their people. They don’t trust in the slim chance some free time will appear. For most, a plan and structure are required.
Perhaps some version of Inga’s plan would work for you. Li