Situational Awareness

We were waiting on line to place an order for ice cream in a local establishment. The man in front of us was standing with his head down looking at his smartphone, earplugs in place, listening presumably to music. The woman at the counter said two or three times, "Next in line," before my husband tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. The phone may have been smart, but he wasn't! He wasn't aware of his situation. I couldn't help but think how many other people would have walked around him and approached the counter to be served, leaving him consumed in his own world.

In his book "Your Brain at Work" author David Rock talks about a phrase coined by a former Microsoft VP. The phrase is continuous partial attention. It's what happens when people's focus is split continuously, resulting in constant and intent mental exhaustion. Constant multi-tasking and being "on" any and all the time, anywhere and any place creates an artificial sense of constant crisis. The brain is forced to be on alert far too much reducing mental capacity. Rock explains that a study done at the University of London found that this can result reducing mental capacity by an average of ten points on an IQ test – similar effect to missing a night's sleep. “Always on” is not a productive way to work.

We all have examples of people not being aware or engaged in what's happening around them. Look at a typical meeting where participants are checking e-mail or taking calls, offering a hurried "excuse me" to others. I'm often tempted to say, "No, you are not excused" but I doubt they'd get the point. Aside from being rude, (I proudly admit to being old school on this one) it's distracting not only to others but for the individual tethered to his or her device. It limits the individual's ability to fully participate and capture any important information, discussion or assignment that results from the meeting. When called upon to participate, the individual may feel disoriented because there is a physiological limit to the amount information your brain can hold at one time.

These are some stunning facts that should make all leaders take note. Employees can't give their best performance in the midst of constant distractions – and technology can be the biggest source of the distractions. E-mails, text messages, phone calls, pop up reminders on computer screens, pings and vibrations often take attention away from the task or discussion on which the person should be focused. Technology can be like a drug, and we've got to discipline ourselves to "just say no" when the situation requires it.

The other day I was working on a project with a critical deadline. I set a ground rule for the day, no calls except for the client who owned this project. Mid-afternoon another client called – he was supposed to call the day before. I let the call go to voice mail because at that moment I was not prepared to talk about his issue and I didn't want to risk giving bad advice. I sent an e-mail later in the day advising him when I'd be available and able to talk. I assessed the situation and managed the distraction. We talked the next day and the conversation was productive.

Right next to the ice cream store is another local self-serve eatery. They've got a great sign at each cash register that speaks to this issue. Be sure to check out this week's photo tweet to see it!


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