The skills that we will require in the future are, increasingly, the ones that cannot be mechanized or automated. These are what are often referred to as soft skills. In fact, the top five skills for 2020, according to the World Economic Forum, include complex problem-solving, critical thinking, cognitive flexibility and creativity. Within each of these skills is a subset of enabling mindsets and behaviors, including systemic thinking, a growth mindset, active listening, critical questioning and creating psychological safety.
Absent from this list, but a foundational soft skill in a manager’s leadership toolkit, is “noticing,” a hard-to-teach soft skill responsible for increasing leadership effectiveness, navigating change, and leading through complex and ambiguous times with agility. Foundational to emotional intelligence and developing the capacity for leadership action is awareness of self, others, and the surrounding environment or systemic connections. Reframing awareness to “noticing” makes this critical skill more accessible. It refers to the observation and perception of focused attention and is an active and intentional approach.
What Gets in the Way
The workplace can be a distracted place, full of emails, texts, phone calls and internal communication channels that constantly need attention. Added to this situation, the thinking brain can become unhelpful when thoughts take us away from the present. A full calendar with a looming meeting, an ever-growing to-do list, pressure felt from increasing workloads and reduced resources are common tensions that will often trigger a threat response and reduced attention to the present.
Many people have, during a conversation with a colleague, made the appropriate responses with a strategically placed “Mmm…” or nod of the head, while actually thinking about how to smoothly exit the conversation to be able to return to other pressing needs. This form of distracted listening reduces our ability to notice cues that will better inform our behavior. In order to make a change, we need to have mindful agency – the propensity to be mindful in the moment.
A framework can help us become more effective at noticing by focusing our attention to intentional and specific criteria. Two key aspects of noticing include developing the propensity to become inwardly aware and outwardly alert.
Being inwardly aware means developing the self-awareness to be able to recognize emotions, thoughts and physical sensations. Taking the example of distracted listening, inward awareness is being attentive to when our thoughts get in the way of our ability to notice. Mindfulness practices can help in these situations by enabling us to note the thought and let it go, so we can return to a more active form of listening. Acknowledging emotions provides an opportunity to be curious and explore where we need to make changes. It also includes an increased awareness of cognitive bias, which may affect the way we perceive events around us.
Being outwardly alert broadens our attention to focused behaviors. A common challenge for many leaders is to translate strategy into action for others. Without a solid awareness of others’ needs and preferences, however, strategic communications can miss the mark. Another example is ineffective teamwork, where alienation and exclusion are characteristic features of a team when working under pressure. If there is an intention to increase alertness for this tendency, you are more likely to notice the need to combat it when it arises.
Developing Noticing Skills
As with any other skill, the ability to become more effective at noticing requires intentional practice to form new habits. Mindfulness, reflection, seeking feedback and developing a greater understanding of others are practices that can help you develop the ability to notice.
Of course, there is a balance; being overly focused can be unhelpful and actually reduce your ability to notice effectively. Noticing is only the start; you should follow it with critical questioning and curiosity. By developing effective noticing skills, you can increase your propensity to take appropriate action that will make a positive difference in the workplace.