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  • Karen Natzel

The cost of not paying attention, and the payoffs when we do

When your to-do list runneth over, the idea of giving someone or something more attention may seem like a luxury you cannot afford. After all, as a mentor once told me, “Your work will expand to the time you give it.” Wise words, indeed, but I offer that the presence you bring will create a more valuable and generative experience.

Many clients have expressed a desire for better time and priority management as a resolution to juggling the burden of a high-volume workload. In a recent coaching session, a client found himself caught on the hamster wheel of busyness. In an admirable attempt to be responsive, he had instead become reactionary, making more mistakes and frustrating team members as a result. He knew his approach was counterproductive and unsustainable, but he did not know how to get out of the cycle. Ultimately, he discovered the philosophy “Go slow to go fast.”

When we fail to slow down and pay attention, we run the risk of not only making errors, but creating inefficiencies, breakdowns in communications and processes, and drama in relationships. We may miss the signs of disengagement, stress and burnout, as well as the nudges of creative, untapped solutions. If left unchecked, “not paying attention” will drain an organization’s capacity to innovate and thrive.

In a world that seems to lack a pause button, the art of paying attention may feel utopian. I tell my clients that while I cannot give them more time, they can choose how they show up in the time and space they do have.

Be present. Giving your full attention is a sign of respect. It is a demonstration that something or someone is of interest or importance to you. It is also a way to maximize the time you spend. When you are present, you are more aware of body language and emotional cues. A good leader creates space for someone to share their authentic self. That space is sacred. And it holds the potential for deeper collaboration and creativity. It opens the door for transformation – of relationships and cultures.

You may find that you are also less stressed as you are not spending time regretting the past nor fretting about the future. Being present can make you more productive by handling what is in front of you, rather than kicking it down the road.

Have a real conversation. In Susan Scott’s book “Fierce Conversations,” she names a key principle: “Come out from behind yourself into the conversation and make it real.” If you are simply exchanging information, a conversation can be transactional. However, if your intent is to connect, I contend respectful candor is the better part of valor. When we keep the conversation at the surface level, we are merely going through the motions. Go deeper.

Listen in a new way. When I conduct organizational health assessments, I often refer to it as “taking the pulse” of the organization’s culture. I listen for what is working and what isn’t. At any point, in any conversation, you can also “take the pulse” by listening not only to what is being said, but how the person is feeling, what they are hesitant to share, and what really matters to them.

The gift of listening without an agenda is the freedom to allow the conversation to go where it needs to. You might be surprised at what you discover! You may catch things you otherwise would have glossed over, or identify organizational obstacles that need to be removed, or discover clues to cross-departmental friction that needs to be addressed. The point is to be inquisitive, with a genuine desire to understand and learn something new. Listen for the nuances. The health of the relationship is in the conversation.

Lead from the heart. As you build the skill of paying attention to what matters, your team will feel the difference. The investment of time, when it comes from a place of truly caring, is foundational to engaging employees in a meaningful way. Part of a leader’s role is to cultivate the potential of their team. Leading form the heart is a sincere way to motivate.

Find your flow. When we give ourselves the space and time to truly focus on a task, we can remember why we enjoy our work. By paying attention to our craft, we might reignite our inspiration and channel our strengths without distraction. Achieving the flow state requires getting past the noise and into the zone.

Heed your intuitive voice. We make decisions all day long – some miniscule, some significant. We make our emotional and intuitive decisions in split seconds, often followed by our analytical, data-driven, rational logic. Learning how to trust your gut can pay dividends – from less analysis paralysis and indecisiveness to more confidence and efficiencies. But first you must be able to hear it. Paying attention includes looking inward, reflecting, and cultivating the skill to rely on your instincts.

Taking the K Challenge:

Where in your life could you afford to pay a little more attention? The practice can be challenging at first as it may feel counter to our push for productivity and getting things crossed off our to-do list. As you learn how to be more present, engage in real conversations, listen in a new way, lead from the heart, find your flow, and heed your intuitive voice, I suspect you will feel that the satisfaction is worth the investment.

Karen Natzel is a business therapist who helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations. Contact her at 503-806-4361 or

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