The skills that we will require in the future are, increasingly, those that cannot be mechanized or automated – often referred to as soft skills. In fact, according to the World Economic Forum, the top five skills for 2020 include complex problem solving, critical thinking, cognitive flexibility and creativity. Within each of these skills is a subset of enabling mindsets and behaviors, including systemic thinking, a growth mindset, active listening, critical questioning and creating psychological safety.
A skill that is absent from this list – but that is maintained as a foundational soft skill in any manager’s leadership toolkit – is ‘noticing’. This is a hard-to-teach soft skill responsible for increasing leadership effectiveness, navigating change, and leading through complex and ambiguous times with agility. Foundational to emotional intelligence and developing the capacity for leadership action is awareness of self, others, and the surrounding environment or systemic connections. By reframing awareness as ‘noticing’, this critical skill becomes more accessible. It refers to the observation and perception of focused attention and is an active and intentional approach.
What gets in the way?
The workplace can be a distracting place, full of emails, texts, phone calls and internal communication channels that constantly demand attention. Further adding to this situation, the thinking brain can become unhelpful when thoughts take us away from the present. A full calendar with a looming meeting, an ever-growing to-do list, pressure felt from increasing workloads and reduced resources are common tensions that will often trigger a threat response and reduce attention to the present.
During conversations with colleagues, many people make the appropriate responses, with a strategically placed ‘mmm…’ or nod of the head, while actually thinking about how to smoothly exit the conversation and return to more pressing needs. This form of distracted listening reduces our ability to notice cues that will better inform our behavior. In order to make a change, we need to have mindful agency – the propensity to be mindful in the moment.
We can become more effective at noticing by using a framework that focuses our attention on intentional and specific criteria. Two key aspects of noticing include developing the propensity to become inwardly aware and outwardly alert.
Being inwardly aware means developing the self-awareness to be able to recognize emotions, thoughts and physical sensations. Take the example of distracted listening: inward awareness is being aware of when our thoughts are getting in the way of our ability to notice. Mindfulness practices can help in these situations by enabling us to acknowledge the thought, but then to let it go, so that we can return to a more active form of listening. Acknowledging emotions provides an opportunity to be curious and explore where we need to make changes. It also includes an increased awareness of cognitive bias, which may affect the way we perceive events around us.
Being outwardly alert broadens our attention to focused behaviors. A common challenge for many leaders is to translate strategy into action for others. However, in the absence of a solid awareness of others’ needs and preferences, strategic communications can miss the mark. Another example of this is ineffective teamwork, in which alienation and exclusion are characteristic features of a team working under pressure. If there is an intention to increase alertness for this tendency, you are more likely to notice the need to combat it when it arises.
Developing noticing skills
Just like any other skill, the ability to become more effective at noticing requires intentional practice to form new habits. Mindfulness, reflection, seeking feedback and developing a greater understanding of others are all practices that can help you to develop the ability to notice.
Of course, there is a balance; being overly focused can be unhelpful and can actually reduce your ability to notice effectively. Noticing is only the start; you should follow it with critical questioning and curiosity. By developing effective noticing skills, you can increase your ability to take appropriate action that will make a positive difference in the workplace.
Scott Rose - VP Consulting Services, Impact Americas