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What Are You Missing When You’re Paying Attention?

July 28, 2020 3:58 PM | Francis Eberle

By Dr. Francis Eberle

July 22, 2020

Recently I came across a familiar video I had not seen in a while. It has two teams, one in black shirts and the other in white shirts, passing basketballs to each other. As you watch it, you are asked to count the number of passes. Sounds easy, right? If you want to watch the original video, go here.

After you report how many passes you saw, you are asked if you saw the gorilla. And yes, during the video a gorilla strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera and thumps his chest, and then walks away. When groups of people watched the video for the first time and were asked if they saw the gorilla, about 50% answered no. I have shown this video to groups and seen the same reaction.

Two researchers, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, developed this experiment at Harvard University in 1999 while studying unintentional blindness. They did the experiment thousands of times, and half of the people who watched the video did not see the gorilla. This experiment is described in most introductory psychology textbooks and is featured in dozens of museums.

The experiment reveals how we miss a lot of what goes on around us, though not always intentionally. In fact, most times we don’t know what we are missing. This second point is the most striking. We don’t get the chance to decide if we want to notice everything or not. If you are a fan of detective or police television shows you know that eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable. We miss a lot.

Paying attention, really paying attention, is critical all the time, but probably more so right now for your team, colleagues, and partners. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, you could walk over to, have lunch, meet for coffee or call team members and colleagues to easily connect with them. If you haven’t noticed just how much the human interaction part of work is different now, you’re not paying attention.

Being aware that things have changed is different from paying attention to your people because they have changed. And taking the time to learn what has changed, instead of assuming that you know, is paying attention.

In a recent McKinsey & Company poll, more than 80% of respondents said they would remember companies that did they right thing by their workers around safety and layoffs. At the same time 75% said they wouldn’t forget those businesses that took missteps long after the COVID-19 pandemic is done.

Harvard Business School professor Hirotaka Takeuchi completed a recent study of Japanese companies based in the Tohoku region where the 2011 tsunami hit that continue to operate today. Despite facing serious financial setbacks from the disaster, many are thriving. One of the reasons was their dedication to responding to the needs of employees and the community first, over business. Pursuing layoffs and other cost-cutting measures were not part of their moral commitment to their people.

To increase your attention as a leader, there are three things you can do: increase visibility, remove roadblocks and have renewed focus on what is important.

Increase Visibility. There are often behaviors and actions that go unobserved because of the pace of work. Slow down and make them visible or transparent. If a behavior offends at the worst or is biased at the most subtle, make it visible by asking why, what was the motivation, did you really mean, and how does that make others feel? Build support for good works through recognition. Note those quiet people who don’t speak up but always deliver quality work. Put your people first. Paying attention like this can help increase inclusion and promote quality work and employees.

Remove Roadblocks. Consider, what is holding people back? Move from a closed mindset where if people don’t deliver then they are somehow not capable, to an open mindset that asks what is the potential and what was in their way. Roadblocks can run the gamut of power positioning, not giving all the information, budgets, or outright blocking. Until you pay attention to the barriers, they will continue to exist and be put up. Some employees in your company will not have access to success because they were not given the opportunity. Paying attention is seeking out the roadblocks to preempt them and not waiting for them to appear.

Renewed Focus. This is the most basic way to pay attention. Focus in this case is not only narrowing but instead an expansion of what a leader might see including monitoring, accountability, identifying problems, observing, adapting, improving, searching for people’s talents and celebrating milestones. It is also narrowing the focus on the larger goal and not getting distracted by office politics, behaviors or structures. Know the context for each employee. Paying attention is really seeing your people, processes and structures, and noticing how they work to ensure they will accomplish the best for your company.

The noise around leaders is loud right now and so much seems to be vying for our attention. Internal and external interactions, social media, marketing, newsletters, offers and news are relentless. Paying attention to your people, focusing on what you what to accomplish and helping them get there will help everyone be successful.

To talk to Dr. Eberle about focus and attention as a leader, email him at

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