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Well that didn’t go the way I expected,” Pat muttered as we walked out of a meeting. “In fact, it didn’t go very well at all. Why does my boss feel the need to take over my project updates?”
Pat had started his meeting with a list of accomplishments on the current project, but it was soon clear that his boss wanted to cut to the chase. “I know she has a dozen things on her plate, but I worry that she’s going to miss critical information that could change the direction of the project,” said Pat. “How can I get her to really listen when she’s in ‘fast-lane’ mode?”
Pat’s concern is all too familiar. The 21st century workplace is teeming with partially attentive bosses and staff members who struggle to operate effectively in their leaders’ orbits. Dysfunctional information exchanges are frustrating and costly, often translating into missed deadlines, additional work and lowered morale.
Hyper-speed bosses can be a challenge, but there are ways to trade information efficiently with them. Pat needed to start thinking of his boss as a new kind of audience—and soon he was predicting her reactions and behavior in almost any situation.
This Is Your Brain On Hyper Speed
Technology has transformed work at all levels in an organization, but in significantly different ways. At the lower level, technology allows tasks that were once tedious and time-consuming to be accomplished with speed and accuracy. Professionals, such as accountants, who remember when calculations took hours on an adding machine give silent thanks as that work now takes only seconds with a touch of the computer’s “enter” key.
At the higher levels of organizations, technology has increased workloads because it has exponentially grown a decision-maker’s key resource: information. Cellular phones, faxes, videoconferencing, the Internet and BlackBerry devices have eliminated time and geographic boundaries.
Today’s leaders are equipped with a continuous, infinite supply of data, and they’re expected to make and manage more decisions than ever before. When asked to mentally attend to more than they can effectively handle, they won’t stop and explain that to you. Instead, they become impulsive or inattentive. Decision-makers haven’t become less industrious or intelligent, but they are paying a price for the windfall of information and the subsequent demands it places on them.
Thanks to neurological research, we have insights into how the brain reacts to such demanding environments. The discomfort or panic that stems from feeling unable to keep up diminishes activity in the regions of the brain that are tied to concentration and attention.
Overwhelmed individuals are easily distracted and likely to avoid tasks that require sustained mental effort. Overwhelmed leaders are likely to be disconnected and prone to be overly tactical. They will make decisions without taking time to get complete information. They will opt for short-term closure instead of long-term results. This reaction is not a matter of intelligence. It’s a matter of the brain’s inability to be fully attentive in overly demanding environments.
Technology is here to stay and, for that matter, so are hyper-speed leaders. It’s time for managers like Pat to catch up. If Pat understands the behavior, he will know how to approach this distracted and impatient audience.
The following six tactics are especially useful in meetings or presentations with hyper-speed leaders when time and attention is particularly limited:
Reduce distractions. Meet in a conference room whenever you can. It’s a more controllable environment than someone’s cubicle. You can close curtains, windows and doors and eliminate visual distractions or hallway conversations that are likely to draw your leader’s attention.
Regardless of the location, do what you can to place yourself directly in your hyper-speed leader’s line of sight. As one astute manager said, “My meetings with my CEO are usually in her office, but I make it a point to sit down at her conference table instead of at her desk. I take the seat that faces her work area so when she sits down across from me, her back is to her desk. She has only me to look at, and there’s less competition for her attention.”
Always move forward. A hyper-speed leader is looking for results. Articulate your goal accordingly, in specific and actionable terms. Pat had the right idea to list his project’s accomplishments. But when he opened with that list, he was not in action mode and his hyper-speed leader felt compelled to “hijack” the meeting.
Pat should have started the meeting by saying, “I’m asking for your go-ahead to start the pilot phase. Based on these three accomplishments, we’re ready to move forward.” That way, he would have had her attention—and her confidence to get things done.
Speak in headlines, not paragraphs. Think about what catches your eye on the front page of a newspaper and you will understand how powerful verbal headlines are with anyone short on time. Quick and snappy statements like “the test phase is complete and three key metrics indicate we’re ready to move ahead” grab attention and summarize what will follow. Conversely, a statement like “there’s a lot to share because this is a pretty lengthy process” signals a long-winded discourse. It’s an unwitting pass for the audience to not pay attention because they’ve been informed that the information is either not actionable or is too dense to easily discern what’s essential.
Support headlines with clear, concise statements. Once you have formed your key ideas into headlines, provide the detail. But, once again, be brief. There’s no power in having the floor if your audience is not listening. Two or three well-chosen details, succinctly stated, will hold your leader’s attention. Beyond that, trust her; if she wants more information, she will ask for it. The opportune time to supply details is when she’s involved.
Ask specific questions. Establish an interactive pattern. Ask for questions, reactions, ideas or feedback every two or three minutes. Make the questions open-ended and specific. “What do you think?” is likely to get vacuous head nodding that’s not a valid approval. “What concerns do you have about the timeline?” or “I’d like your feedback on this particular approach” actively engage someone to provide valuable input.
Use agendas. Hyper-speed leaders are so focused on the present that they will forget the reasons decisions were made, and they will inadvertently neglect the long-term effect of their pending decisions. Put an agenda, a chronology, a timeline or other tool in a hyper-speed leader’s hands to keep him mindful of both short- and long-term goals. If Pat had opened with a one-page chronology, his boss would have had a visible reminder of the project’s scope and likely would have allowed Pat to revisit the past.
Are You on Hyper Speed?
Hyper speed doesn’t describe just leaders. Managers of all levels are equally susceptible to being impulsive, inattentive or overly tactical. Learn to recognize those moments when you’re slipping into hyper-speed mode and use these four techniques to break the cycle. You’ll remain effective while ensuring these behaviors don’t run rampant through your own organization.
Get up and move around. Physical exercise feeds the brain in a multitude of positive ways. Even when you don’t feel tense, make it a habit to move around. Walk down the hall to top off your water bottle or look out the window to check the weather. Take the long way around the floor or use the stairs when you go to a meeting. If you’re in a meeting, wiggle and point your toes, stretch your fingers and move your jaw side to side. Stand up behind your chair for a few moments “just to take a quick stretch.” Physically moving will help slow down your mind and get you to focus.
Ask yourself why you’re rushing. Slow down if there are no significant consequences to delaying a decision and there’s a valid reason to gather more data. You don’t have to say “no” to buy time. Offer a reason and a firm deadline like “let me get some cost information from finance and make a recommendation before the end of the day.”
Talk about it. Hyper-speed behavior can be like the proverbial elephant in the room: an issue that everyone on your team knows exists but that no one will acknowledge. Legitimize the topic. Identify your hyper-speed behaviors in terms of a business opportunity. For example, tell your team members to rehearse their presentations and hone their material, not because you are short on attention but because their full involvement is valuable and critical.
Plan for hyper speed. Book 20- or 50-minute meetings instead of the perfunctory half or full hours. Those 10 minutes can be time to refocus or regain a sense of control.
Book an hour with yourself every Friday so you can catch up or get organized for the coming week. Keep a supply of manila folders and removable labels in easy reach on your desk so you can replace the countless sheets of papers on your desk with an immediate and ongoing file system. As one manager who used that system said, “My desk may be piled high, but I feel more in control when I can quickly scan through folders rather than shuffle through papers.”
It’s a fast-paced world we live in, and it’s not going to slow down. Once we create awareness of hyper-speed behaviors in ourselves as well as in others, adaptation becomes easy.
Ellen Nichols is a consultant whose work focuses on team dynamics. She has more than 20 years of experience as a human resource executive in Fortune 100 companies including NBC Universal and The Walt Disney Co. She encountered her first hyper-speed leader more than 10 years ago and developed techniques to effectively work with her boss. Ellen can be reached at
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