Keeping Focus in a World of Distractions

A leader’s control of focus matters personally, for the team, and for the whole organization, writes emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

We all suffer from one malady: constant distraction. Incoming texts, emails calls, the  siren call of temptations like Facebook, Instagram, video games, or that net series we’ve been binge watching. Some of these pulls away from focus are for good business reasons. Others are just seductive. Then there’s emotional turmoil, the single most powerful distraction bar none.

For a leader, though, focus holds the key to accomplishment. A leader’s control of focus matters personally, for the team, and for the whole organization.

The capacity to focus on whatever matters most at the moment operates in our brain’s prefrontal region, where circuitry strengthen signals related to our intended focus and weaken signals we want to ignore.

One way we can take back control of our focus involves what I call “emotional balance,” strengthening our ability to focus by building stronger connections in the underlying neural circuitry. This strengthening occurs, for instance, when we understand better how we react to key events and find ways to manage our kneejerk emotions if they get triggered.

To minimize these out-of-focus moments, we can start by understanding what we can—and cannot—control in our lives. For instance, while we don’t have direct influence over the people we work with or organizational politics, we can control how we manage ourselves and how we interact with others.

What we can control: self-awareness, our attitude, and our stance toward others. By taking responsibility for managing ourselves in these ways we gain inner balance. And that, in turn, lets us more effectively address situations which we do not have direct control over; for instance, motivating your coworker to complete their part of a project.

We lose focus completely while we are emotionally triggered; our attention fixates on what triggered us. While that applies first to our brain and ourselves, it works too on teams.

If you’re the leader of a team, you can use empathy on the one hand, and articulating a motivating goal on the other to create a shared focus. Include a hopeful, positive outlook to deflect the kind of negative focus that breeds disengagement and discouragement. So, for example, if you view setbacks with a positive lens—as opportunities, not failures—and see the best in others, people on your team are likely to become more engaged and motivated.

Another way team leaders boost their effectiveness is via empathy for their team members, especially when people feel defeated or distracted. Some teams allot a time during regular meetings to share what’s top of mind for them, whether it be personal or work related. If someone on your team is distracted by an external events, there are likely others who feel the same. Creating an opportunity for team members to share these feelings can generate mutual empathy among everyone and make it easier to return to the task at hand with a focused mindset.

Finally, when you articulate a mission that inspires your team, you help them see the impact of their contributions. This can make a fundamental difference in people’s satisfaction with their life and work. When we feel part of an inspiring mission, it’s easier for us to stay focused on our work.