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The Ethical Workplace

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Should You Have An Attention Management Strategy?

April 25, 2012
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Values, Ethics, Workplace Culture
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Every company today is fighting to attract and retain talent. But there’s another, overlooked, talent war that could yield greater benefits if won and greater harm if lost.

It’s the war for the attention of your talent. All of our great new forms of communication are eroding our ability to maximize our own talents.

I read a health care blog last week posing the question of how to keep physicians and other health care workers from blogging, emailing and engaging in other electronic communications during work hours. The blogger cited the example of a physician who was about to enter important information on a patient’s chart but got interrupted by a text inviting her to party.

By the time she texted a reply to the invitation, she forgot what she was doing and did not make the note on the chart—with near-fatal results. A few years ago, we all would have found this story unbelievable. Now, I’m betting that all of us who are wired have had a similar experience where important work lost out to the immediate interruption.

Neuroscientists say that our inability to resist these interruptions is because of a dopamine squirt—a drop of biochemical pleasure that’s triggered when we get a text, an email or like communications. We crave those hits unconsciously.

When they arrive, they distract us from our work at hand. The urge to answer and get a biochemical payoff is similar to what’s found in other addictive behaviors such as smoking and gambling. Even the urgency of a critical health care situation isn’t strong enough to overcome this urge. We are all vulnerable.

What companies have to realize is that attention, like talent, is a limited human resource. Though multitasking has been lauded as a required skill of the modern lifestyle, psychologists are finding out that in fact we can only focus on a limited number of tasks or issues at a time.

Twenty years ago—a millennium in terms of technology—if you wanted to reach someone you would have to walk to their office, place a call, send them a letter or set up a meeting. Each of those steps took more conscious effort and thought than the combined effort of all the texts, emails or voice mails we now send every day, and any time of day or night from anywhere. The result of the barrage of communications we get is that our attention is being diminished.

Back in 1938, the U.S. passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which basically requires employees should be paid for all the time they work. I’m not saying we need new legislation, but it seems ironic that the situation has now reversed: We need something to make sure that employees are actually working to the best of their ability when they are being paid to do so rather than being distracted by unnecessary communication.

Employees who initiate and respond to incessant communications are diverting their own, their employer’s and their co-workers’ time. And a lot of talent is being wasted as a result.

So the question is: If we’re concerned—as we should be—about talent management, shouldn’t we be doing more to manage the ability of our talented teams to use their fullest attention to produce the best results for our organizations?

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