In How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life, Caroline Webb explains that the things we pay attention to are only those things that get through our automatic filters and reach our deliberate awareness. In other words, our conscious attention is limited by an unconscious filter. If our filter removes important or relevant details from the world around us, then we cannot fully process and understand an event.
This is particularly relevant to our work in leading others. Our full attention is required to see patterns in how people interact and the common words, expressions, and ideas they use. If we look for other things, or nothing at all, we will miss these complex aspects of group performance. We cannot act upon these things until we see them. This is why we train ourselves to recognize what is relevant to effective leadership.
I realize that I have been doing this, unconsciously and on a large scale, for my entire professional life. Ever since my early experiences with leadership, I paid attention to the things that make groups successful. This question was always in my mind, and so I looked for answers (and the behaviors that provided those answers). This is why I see them more now: I taught my unconscious to filter and pass these events to my conscious mind.
This is also why the mental model of functional leadership and the definition of leadership are so important. When we put words to these things, we allow our unconscious filters to recognize them as important and therefore keep them. Learning to lead is not just tactics in the form of behaviors, but also the process of seeing and understanding so that we can apply those tactics at the right time and place.
How to Have a Goo Day has a great exercise to begin any activity (or your entire day). It's designed to focus your attention and awareness in a combination of mindfulness and deliberate learning.
Choosing Your Filter
(From How to Have a Good Day by Caroline Webb)
Take a moment to think about the day ahead or an important conversation you have coming up. Ask yourself these intention-setting questions:
Aim: What matters most in making this a success, and what does that mean your real priority should be?
Attitude: What concerns are dominating your thoughts or your mood? Do they help you with your priorities - and if not, can you choose to set them aside for now?
Assumptions: What negative expectations do you have going into this? How might you challenge those expectations? What counterevidence might you seek out?
Attention: Given your real aim and your assumptions, where do you most want to direct your attention? What do you want to make particularly sure you notice?
Check out How to Have a Good Day for a full explanation of this exercise and the behavioral science explanation for why it works, as well as numerous other practical tools to improve your daily performance as a leader or in any other role.
And, as you practice leadership, remember that before you can take any actions, you have to see the right things. Ask yourself, what am I paying attention to? If it is emails, checklists, or paperwork, are these really the things that to bring out excellence in the group?
Webb, Caroline. How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life. Currency, 2016.