I’ve come to believe generous attention is today’s managerial imperative. Having spent more time considering the value of generous attention, I collected three stories from my workplace over the last year that demonstrate its power. Each story proved to me the power of this attention to a different business stakeholder: a client, a workforce, and a colleague.
I put these observations together into a presentation I gave at the Small Giants Community Summit in Detroit last month. I’ll share the three stories along with the video clip from the talk that illustrate how important this attention can be in your organization.
At the end, I’ll offer a four-step formula to activate generous attention in your own work (or otherwise) life.
Generous Attention in Client Relationships
My first is a story about a time I got schooled by someone I hired in the power of generous attention.
At Atomic Object, we sell project engagements to clients that last a few months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
When our projects ended, I started asking clients about their experiences with us. I thought these interviews would generate good data to improve our services. Because I focused on analyzing the data from these conversations, I approached asking the questions with the deadpan delivery of a census taker.
See, I thought uniformity in asking questions was the most important thing. I collected the data, typed up the notes, and generally found it a dry and boring task. When the client started going on a tangent, I saw it as my responsibility to get them back on track.
Then Lina joined the team. My colleague Lina is a pretty amazing person. She is soulful, funny, and caring. I asked her to take over the task of client interviews from me. When Lina began running these interviews, I started noticing weird stuff. For one, I began hearing laughter from the phone booth. She started receiving unsolicited swag. One day, she got a package containing a little collapsible Zoom green screen.
The next thing I know, she asked if it would be okay to send a client a gift card to a specialty pickle store in Utah.
She told me a client had opened up to her on a call. She said he was struggling to provide childcare to his kids who were attending school remotely that week. The client said he was feeling burned out and deprived. He’d also mentioned loving a local pickle chain, so Lina thought to show her attention through a small token.
I started to realize how I’d been approaching these calls all wrong. By prioritizing uniformity over attention, I missed out on the magic relationship-building attention could bring to the moment.
Even when Lina interviews an unhappy client, she offers her generous attention. She gives their feedback the space it needs to breathe and be heard. More than once, a client thanked her just for the chance to be listened to with openness.
Even more amazing? Lina spreads the benefits of her attention. She converts these interview transcripts into 5-star Google reviews. And she shares the good vibes with the team, summarizing client compliments in an email she sends to the whole company.
Consider the ways that your organization listens to customers. We all do it, but what would it look like if you inject some generous attention into that process? How can you help your customer leave that experience not just feeling heard—but attended to?
I think the creation of that attentive space is just as important as the feedback you collect. And I’m grateful to Lina for teaching me that lesson.
Generous Attention Leading Return-to-Office Efforts
Another example of the power of attention at my company? Our CEO’s response to Covid-19.
As I said, when the virus hit, Atomic Object went remote to protect our health. We assumed it’d be a matter of days or weeks, max.
A year later, we were still working from our dining room tables. Covid was whip-sawing around. Business leaders across the country were doing their best to be decisive in a time of pure chaos.
Leaders across the country were using the same data to make wildly different decisions. Tech Giants declared fully-remote workplaces. Workers traded mortgages for sprinter vans and became digital nomads. Parents of school-aged kids left the workforce. Some CEOs demanded their employees must return to the office, only to have the next virus wave wash away their plans.
My company’s co-CEOs Mike and Shawn did something different. Instead of making a declaration about our future, they decided to offer up attention.
They broke our entire company down into small groups of six people. Each group came into the office one group at a time. And Mike and Shawn listened.
They asked how people were doing. They asked what was and wasn’t working about transitioning back to the office. Mike and Shawn shared ideas about work flexibility benefits and asked for feedback. They didn’t debate or respond or even probe. They just spent an hour listening to every person and collecting notes on stickies.
There was no epiphany from this work. No silver bullet that offered them the solution to how we could thread the needle on the future of work.
What it did do was provide a container of attention for people. Our employees had a contradictory jumble of emotions, experiences, preferences, and anxieties about returning to the office. This “listening tour” gave them the space to let it out in community.
Mike and Shawn took all the sticky notes, and a month later, they shared a 25 (!) page report summarizing what they heard.
Here are a few:
“When I’m in the office, I worry much less if I’m ‘doing enough.’”
“I’ve been a gamer all my life. I‘ve been able to take the skill and apply that to remote work”
“Getting back to in-person social connections is something I didn’t realize I missed.”
“I’m an introvert, but solitary remote pushed me to my limits.
“Remote work means easier medical care for my pet.”
“I like my bike commute”
When I read the report, I felt relieved. Even as an atomic leader, I had the same mixed feelings. It took reading this report to realize I wasn’t alone.
Mike and Shawn’s act of attention created an emotional space within our company where I saw conflict in other companies.
As I said, the exercise wasn’t a silver bullet. It took them six more months to decide whether and how we’d return to the offices.
But because they took the time to pay attention, no one believed that Mike and Shawn were making decisions in a vacuum. Everyone felt the emotional security provided by quality attention.
Spacious Attention for Career Support
I’ve shared stories about what attention can do for your clients and your entire company. My last story shows what attention can do for a single colleague.
I first learned about Job Crafting five years ago at the University of Michigan’s wonderful Positive Business Consortium. Job Crafting is an exercise that helps workers edit their jobs. The purpose of these edits is to make their job better designed around themselves—rather than a generic job description.
Before the holidays, my colleague confided that she felt disconnected from the job she once loved.
I offered to run the Job Crafting exercise with her. We spent three hours on a snowy afternoon investigating what was feeling like a disjointed work life.
My colleague shared how the career she’d been so sure about a few years earlier was feeling less fulfilling. She was unhappy at work. She reasoned she might as well go find the highest-possible paying job if she was resigned to professional unhappiness.
As we worked through the Job Crafting process, she found some creative options she could pursue within her job without leaving the company she loves.
As with the client interviewing tool, I thought the rigor of the process was the point. But a couple of days after the exercise, I got this note from her:
“Thanks for your time and emotional energy yesterday. All of it was incredibly helpful and insightful in organizing my thoughts, but the most valuable part of all was just being able to lay out a bunch of thoughts and have them reflected back to me with extra clarity. It’s a real gift to let someone use you as a mental mirror like that.”
I am a big believer in Job Crafting as a tool. But I wonder if we’d have had the same outcome if I had scrapped the exercise and just listened to my colleague speak for those three hours.
Many of us are so in our heads these days that giving another person the gift of generous attention can get them unstuck, even if you don’t have the answers.
My colleague felt so energized by her experience that she launched a job crafting curriculum to spread among her colleagues.
Experimenting with Generous Attention
Each of these three stories began with a setting of a scene for attention. This is different from working toward a known outcome.
Lina would not have known to buy our clients some pickles going into her call. Our CEOs wouldn’t have been able to get broad buy-in for their return to office plan before they asked everyone. I wouldn’t have guessed how my colleague wanted to craft her job before giving her the environment to consider it.
Generous attention is like soil. You don’t know what will grow in richly cultivated soil, but you do know that nothing will grow without it.
After I offered my Small Giants talk, I heard a lot of positive feedback from the audience about the utility they found in considering how they can employ a little generous attention in their own life.
- A name of the focus of your generous attention. This can be anyone you come into contact with. It could be someone at work or outside of work. Ideas: An Employee, A Peer, A Manager, A Child, A Friend, A Partner, A Departing Colleague, A New Colleague, A Parent, An Office Coordinator, A Vendor, A Mentor, A Customer, A Sibling, etc.
- An impact you’d like your generous attention to have on this person. This is likely a feeling you want the other person to have. Ideas: Feel safe, Feel welcome, Feel supported, Feel empowered, Feel heard, Feel confident, Feel appreciated, Feel encouraged, Feel valued, Feel excited, Feel brave, Feel free, Feel creative, etc.
- The method of generous attention delivery. This can be something you already know about, like a standing meeting, or it could be something you specially arrange. Ideas: A 1:1 meeting, A phone call, A walk and talk, A handwritten letter, A Job Crafting Exercise, A coffee meetup, An email, A meaningful token, A standing check-in meeting, A dinner, etc.
- What you can do in that exchange to cultivate generous attention that achieves your goal. List as many as will be helpful. Ideas: Scheduling in extra time, Switching my phone to “do not disturb,” Listening twice as much as speaking, Showing up with curiosity, Preparing my attention with mindfulness, etc.
I’d love to hear stories about what happened when you experimented with a little generous attention.