- “Here we go again – another program of the year!”
- “Another reorg – who’s my boss today? And I’m expected to pick up the slack – again?!”
- “Our company slogan should be, ‘All swirl – no strategy’!”
As an “organizational doctor,” when I hear clients vent such frustrations, I know they are symptoms of a deeper disease. My diagnosis? Organizational ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Just like people can struggle with the symptoms of ADHD, so too can organizations struggle to stay focused in the face of conflicting priorities and constant redirection. As a change leader, how do you know your organization is suffering from ADHD, and what can you do about it? Let’s break it down.
The “Attention Deficit” Change Challenge
When it comes to focus, what is grabbing the attention of your employees and team members – not to mention your own?
Here are some sobering statistics:
- People see more than 34 billion bits of information per day.
- 91% of workers in the U.S. report they discard work information without fully reading it.
- Interruptions caused by information overload are estimated to cost U.S. companies $650 billion a year.
Your inbox is a perfect example of all the subjects vying for your attention. In addition to this email from me today, how many others have you received? How many are in your inbox unread? How many have you deleted without even opening? Voicemails received but unanswered? Checked your social media or snail mail today?
Information overload (or info-toxicity as it’s also called) reduces our ability to make effective decisions – and even to genuinely understand the data we are receiving. Any surprise your change-related communications are not cutting through the deluge?
And what about the “deficit” in “attention deficit”? Lack, loss, something missing, something wrong. When overwhelmed, stressed and confused, we can fall prey to the “threat-rigidity effect”: We feel threatened and devolve into rigid behavior patterns. Less oxygen gets to our brains, so we revert to well-learned routines – flight, fight, or freeze. Creativity, positivity, and energy evaporate.
When embattled we can start seeing everything as a problem to be fixed. The incessant spotlight on “solving problems” – dealing with what’s wrong – keeps us rooted in the past and perceiving only the negative aspects of the current reality.
What can a change leader do?
It’s been said that “leadership is the art of focusing attention,” so let’s start there:
Are you role modeling focusing attention on the right things? On the important few versus the trivial many? Are you protecting your people from distractions?
Are you culpable in polluting your workplace with info-toxicity? When you need to deliver messages, how can you be even briefer and more relevant to your audience – create a killer story-that-sticks? Go beyond information to insight?
Do you communicate the connection between what may seem like “new” or disparate activities to the overall vision, mission, and values – so people appreciate the purpose behind priorities? Showing people the “why” in addition to the “what” and “how”?
How are you clarifying the line-of-sight between people’s day-to-day tasks and impact on consequential goals? So often what unblocks old routines is not top-down information-sharing but rather bottom-up behavior change – not pithy slogans, but the powerful pull of seeing with your own eyes glimpses of the transformation enacted real-time by soldiers in the trenches together.
Are you balancing a concentration on “fixing what’s wrong” with “finding what’s right”? Do you “share the dream” and work with your team to design a new, motivating future state? Do you foster an environment of complaining about the past or present state, instead of demonstrating commitment to charting inspiring new directions?
The “Hyperactivity Disorder” Change Challenge
To keep up with the unrelenting pace of change, it can seem like we all need to be in constant manic motion. We can feel like we take-on lots of activities, but have little tangible impact. Even within a change project, it’s so easy for team members to become overwhelmed by the amount of detail, number of deliverables, and scope of work. Urgent crises derail important tasks. At the end of the day we ask, “what did we accomplish?”
We know now that multitasking reduces effectiveness, yet here are more sad stats:
- People are interrupted and move from project to project every 11 minutes.
- It takes 25 minutes to return to the original project and get back “in the groove.”
- People are as likely to self-interrupt as to be interrupted by someone else!
“Busy-ness” is loosely related to the attention deficit challenge, but manifests differently. Hyperactivity disorder gives the appearance that everyone is “working hard” and that your team is making progress. In fact, you could be just treading water, or even worse moving quickly in the opposite direction of where you want to go.
Moreover, what’s on the other side of manic motion is often disengaged depression. Just as individuals can suffer from bipolar disorder, so can people in organizations swing from relentless frenzy to resigned apathy when it all gets to be too much, when they don’t see their efforts resulting in positive forward movement, and when they can’t perceive the correlation between their contributions and outcomes.
Yet, behind every complaint is a request. Those infuriating eye-rolls from your people at the announcement of a “new program!” is often the result of severe change fatigue. What seems like complacency or even indifference can be a survival instinct for having tried way too hard for way too long and being way too disappointed in seeing no sustained results and receiving no sincere recognition.
What can you as a change leader do?
As yourself again – what am I role modeling?
Break out of hyperactivity through inter-activity. Stop rushing and start relating. Partner with your team to consciously assess whether activities are supportive of goals and prioritize accordingly. Develop the discipline to laser focus. Banish the irrelevant to make space for the significant.
Work together to create meaningful metrics targeting relevant results. Switch attention from checking boxes on a project plan to managing performance outcomes that matter.
Demonstrate as clearly as possible what specific behaviors will lead to valued outcomes. Show how right actions lead to right results.
Recognize, reward, and celebrate key milestones – when small steps have led to real results.
Develop the discipline to just say no. As a wise woman once said, “‘no’ is a complete sentence. You are in control of your own behavior, not a puppet. Set boundaries. Train people how to treat you. As you build muscle in this area, you will give others confidence to do so as well.
Balance activity and interactivity with inner-activity – knowing that this is vastly different than “in-activity”. Are you balancing doing and being? Leaders who are more reflective are more effective. The essence of continuous improvement is continual learning, which mandates time for contemplation.
Am I powering down to power up? Just like your computer, your brain and body need to “shut down” every so often to reboot and refresh. Get the gunk out. Take care of yourself, and make time for family and friends.
Organizational ADHD and the Change Intelligent Leader
Change intelligent leaders know the antidote to Organizational ADHD is THEIR ability to develop and deploy their own CQ. Providing purpose unleashes passion. Focusing attention facilitates forward momentum. Lasering in on mission-critical activities keeps people on the path. That’s heart, head, and hands in action – leading in a way that people get it, want it, and are able to do it – working together toward the goal of successful and sustainable transformation.