Attention, and Why I’m Rethinking Managerial Generosity

Socially distant backyard hangouts, handwritten letters, virtual group book clubs, gift cards, Zoom happy hours, birthday flowers, work anniversary speeches, remote board games, holiday gifts, additional PTO, care packages, organized outdoor walks… Two years into this pandemic, managers are running out of ideas to keep their team’s morale afloat.

When I found myself contemplating shelling out for a Tom Bergeron Cameo for my team, I realized continuing to up the workplace generosity ante is getting stale. No amount of razzle-dazzle (even from Tom) is likely to distract anyone from the heavy reality we’re all slogging through.

I had a generosity revelation.

So I was in the right frame of mind to receive this Simone Weil quote when I heard it featured in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” this weekend:

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

What might have read like a forgettable cliché in the Before Times hit me with the force of a revelation. (Especially with Peter Sarsgaard’s delivery.)

So I made a resolution. This year, I’ll think less about material generosity and more about the quality of my focus on the people I support at work. Here’s how I plan to make my resolution practical and alive throughout the year.

Define what generous attention means to you.

Before you can generously attend, you need to figure out your own style. I learned about this from my training as a journalist.

For me, being attentive in conversation can mean listening with curiosity to understand the next question someone is hoping I’ll ask.

For example, say someone tells you that they’re “really excited for this weekend.” Chances are, they want permission to share the fun plans they have with you. These cues are easy to miss in meetings, but giving them space to unfold into a conversation is a great way to pay someone attention.

Another powerful form of attention is allowing for silence. In a work conversion, processing thoughts and feelings through the safe-for-work filter takes time. Sometimes what can feel like leaving awkward silence in a conversation is an empathetic gift that allows someone to consider and share their truth.

Break the bad Zoom habits.

I’m more distracted in conversation with others when we’re talking on Zoom than when speaking in person. Part of this stems from being stuck in the efficiency hamster wheel I crawled onto at the onset of the pandemic. If during this call, I can check my Slack, email, and dashboard, then I will become an Efficiency God! This practice has corrupted my state of attention on Zoom. That invites problems worse than inefficiency into my work relationships.

There are probably valid neurological reasons for this disconnect we feel when speaking remotely. But for the moment, it’s the only link I’ve got with colleagues, so I’d better come up with an attention workaround.

I’ve found some logistical ways of preserving attention on Zoom. They include unplugging my second monitor, anticipating and preventing disruptions, and putting devices in do-not-disturb mode. I also make sure my camera is close to the video faces of those I’m speaking to (to make it seem like I’m looking at them when I am looking at their rendered faces), and I keep both my hands in the camera frame. So far, I’m finding it difficult to develop these habits, but I hope they will strengthen with practice.

Turn small talk into big talk.

After I finished “The Lost Daughter” and the attention quote was rattling around in my brain, I got curious about its author. Simone Weil was a French philosopher who wrote about religion in the early 1900s. In “Waiting for God,” the same collection of essays in which she penned the quote that got me interested, she writes:

“The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’”

In these times—and really in any—we are all carrying around a messy jumble of pain, joy, and strife. We generally can’t fix what’s hurting in someone’s life, but that doesn’t mean that bearing witness to them is pointless. According to Weil, it’s the only relevant way to show up for someone.

This concept encouraged me to alter my approach to checking in on people, with surprising consequences. It’s the difference for me of asking “What’s been on your mind recently?” or “Has anything been on your mind that you’d like to talk about?” instead of “How are you?” or “Are you okay?” (questions to which we’ve all become culturally anesthetized). So far, I find that attention to changing how you ask these questions has a radical change in emotional truth to the answer. By deviating from the standard script, your conversation partner has a little more trust in the quality of your attention.

Pay attention beyond conversation.

Weil says that in addition to real-time attention, thinking about someone can be another form of attention. If we managers think about someone, their work, their career goals, and how we can create opportunities for them—that is also generous attention. One fantastic tool I recommend for developing the awareness necessary for this type of attention is Job Crafting.

I was speaking with my colleague Rachael recently, and she told me how moved she was by a mentor who told her: “I’ve been thinking about this for a few months, and I think what might help you is…” She didn’t even remember what he said next; the emotional resonance was all about the attention her mentor had paid to her when she wasn’t even around.

Mess up and reset.

As a perfectionist, it’s tough for me to set a resolution and find that I can’t uphold it without fail. Since the new year began, I’ve been challenging myself—especially in Zoom meetings—with the folks I manage, to present undivided attention.

In reality, of course, attention is under relentless assault. In a Zoom meeting this week with a team member, my dog began whining and begging, needing to be let out, during an important conversation.

Frustrated, I asked for a moment’s pause while I let her outside. Shortly thereafter during the same Zoom call, I received a phone call from my manager, which I decided to answer.

The result was a Zoom meeting that contained less-than-generous attention, despite my intentions. My impulse was to stew about the disruptions, but I decided to act transparently with my Zoom-call partner instead. I told her I had intended to be more present and provide better attention, but I had not hit the mark. I apologized. She granted me grace, and with the apology, I forgave myself, too. There will surely be (many, many) more Zoom calls to try again.

Notice the generous attention you receive.

My resolution made me consider the relationships I have at work that truly feel generous. The common denominator? They’re based on attention.

I remember how important I felt the first time I saw Carl Erickson, the CEO of the company I worked for, stop everything he was doing to turn his undivided attention on me when I brought him an idea to share.

My hope is I can take this New-Year inspiration and turn around some bad habits I’ve adopted in the pandemic, remote-work context. Next time I find myself compelled to spend some money on a way to try to help my colleagues’ lives feel less difficult, I’ll check my impulse. Instead, I’ll have the discipline to sit with them and the purest attention I can muster.

How do you like to show up with presence at attention in your work relationships? Do you have advice for helping my resolution stick?

  • Michael McBain says:

    I was late in my managerial career when I realised that the people that worked for me liked working for me because I gave them my full and undivided attention when they came to see me. It might have been impostor syndrome on my part, but my go-to response when a problem was brought to me was to ask ‘what do you think we should do?’ [because I had no clue], and this turned out to be a very important element in my reputation as an empathic manager, which I don’t think I am. I would then consider the suggestion there and then, possibly disagreeing with the proposed solution. Apparently, this was also a good thing, one staff member saying “even when you disagree, we know you have listened”. So, somehow, panic and cluelessness on my part translated into listening and paying attention. Who knew?

    • Elaine Ezekiel Elaine Ezekiel says:

      I appreciate your modesty, Michael. I like you already! :)

      Your comment reminds me of something my dad always said to me growing up: if you go to a party, and all you do is ask the people you meet questions about themselves, they’ll leave saying, “I met the most fascinating person tonight!”

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