31 Jan The One Leadership Trait No One is Talking About
Every day, we’re bombarded by different internal and external stimuli. But these aren’t just texts and emails. A distracting event can spring from an off-hand remark, an argument, a nonverbal cue, an intrusive worry, or any other kind of subterranean emotional or cognitive element that’s beating in the background. And whether we realize it or not, we feel compelled to respond to it all, be it through a 240-character tweet or a 240-minute anxiety-fest. For every event we fixate on, we lose our most valuable assets: time and energy that could be spent on more important things.
While many good leaders possess a requisite mixture of intelligence (IQ) and people smarts (EQ), the great ones have something else in spades. They know how to slow their mind, focus their attention, and hear the signal through the noise. This skill is something we call Filter Quality (FQ). FQ describes how well an individual can effectively prioritize which tasks, provocations, and events deserve their response, and which are unnecessary to achieving better outcomes and goals. It is a concept specific to successful leadership, allowing a leader’s aptitude to focus their attention wisely.
The good news is that with practice and retraining, we can strengthen our FQ. In this article, I’ll talk about what FQ is and lay out some helpful techniques to improve it. This kind of mindfulness won’t just make you a better coworker, it will make you a better partner, friend, citizen, mentor, and parent. The goal is to have more meaningful, valuable, and intentional professional and personal lives. Who wouldn’t want that?
FQ describes how well an individual can effectively prioritize which tasks, provocations, and events deserve their response, and which are unnecessary to achieving better outcomes and goals.
Welcome to the Attention Economy
There’s really nothing new about FQ. The ideas behind it might form some of the oldest in human history, defined separately by many wisdom traditions for the last four thousand odd years. Think about the famous serenity prayer, penned in the 1930s and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous to “accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” FQ is all about “knowing the difference.” But making that call has gotten much more difficult in the last thirty years.
In 1997, policy wonk Michael Goldhaber looked at the kind of future that the blossoming tech revolution was about to bring about and understood exactly. “Attention, at least the kind we care about, is an intrinsically scarce resource,” he argued. “My conclusion is that we are headed into what I call the attention economy.”
He was right. Today’s world is all about attention. Most every app or website is built around selling our attention to advertisers—including Twitter, Facebook, CNN, and the likes. Our personal devices run the show. We know that these apps are addictive too, as numerous research studies have shown how these digital platforms hijack our dopamine responses and keep us neurologically enthralled.
In fact, our brain chemistry has everything to do with it. Neurologists and cognitive psychologists know that much of how we behave comes down to our amygdala. Stress, fear, and excitement all fire up this very ancient portion of our brains. It doesn’t know that were reacting to a work email and not a sabertooth tiger, so the same physiognomic reaction ensues. Our prefrontal cortex, responsible for rational decision making, takes a back seat and panic ensures.
Ironically, in the face of all of these stimuli, we have tons of tech tools marketed to help us increase productivity and efficiency. But they all miss the point. Pushing to get more done during the day is a hollow goal. That’s why FQ is filter quality, because we are just as concerned about filtering out stimuli as we are about the quality of how we respond, the qualities of who we are, the quality of what we do.
Exercise: How To Strengthen Your FQ
It is time to reframe our cognitive wiring and build our “filter” muscle. We need to first ask the question: “does this event even deserve a response from me?” A response doesn’t need to be an overt, intentional act either: it could be something as simple as an intrusive thought, an unresolved worry, or the unconscious clenching of your jaw. What ties responses together is that they demand some amount of your precious time and cognitive energy.
You can’t control all of the events you encounter in your daily life. And while you may have a set of clear outcomes you want to achieve—those aren’t guaranteed either. Ultimately, the only thing that you do have control over is what you will respond to and how you will do it. I can’t quite tell you how to respond, but I can help you see what you should respond to. This is the first step of filtering.
Here’s an exercise. Think back over the past week and write down five or six stressful or affecting events in your work or personal life that you can remember off hand. Recency bias aside, you don’t need to come up with big events: thoughts, worries, fantasies, emails, headlines, etc.—all may apply. Next to each entry, write down what medium brought the event to you (i.e. email, text, personal interaction), who or what caused it, what you knew at the time, and then how you chose to respond. Feel free to keep it short. Here are a few examples to help:
A colleague tells you that a new leader criticized your work to her
An email states that a peer received a promotion
Your boss informs you that your team will be significantly changed
You successfully land a new client
A chat message insinuates that your role may be in jeopardy
A new EVP joins your company after leaving a toxic org.
Colleagues share gossip on a video call, but you can’t tell what it’s about
Your org introduces a new process that might derail your future projects.
With this list of events in hand, the next step is to apply these to a list of filtering questions. A filtering question forces us to stop, take a moment, reframe an event or stimuli, and then come to a much more determined or thoughtful response. These are the six filtering questions that I always begin with. Let’s dig into them:
CONSIDER THE SOURCE.
This was one of my dad’s favorite pieces of advice and I still rely on it every day. It’s where I start when evaluating anything that’s demanding my attention. Is the source an individual? Is anyone actually responsible? Most importantly, do I trust their perception?
WILL MY response actually help?
This is a big one—and a mistake I see leaders of all stripes making every day. Often the higher up we get in an org the greater we feel the need to “lead” by responding. What would happen if you didn’t respond at all. What would happen if someone else took the lead? Can I really affect change right now? Do I have the authority to change it? If I push my concerns to a supervisor what will they do?
Has it already happened?
This might seem obvious, but often it isn’t. Think about the event. Is the toothpaste out of the tube already? Or do you need to wait to see how things unfold. Is your reaction going to be premature or too late? Most importantly, is it really that urgent?
Can it be resolved without me?
This question relates to #2 but is one of the most valuable in our FQ toolbox. Will someone else handle this? Is there someone else who is more qualified to take on this problem?
What is the worst that can happen?
This can be a hard question for many as we usually want to fly right from the smallest off-hand remark to the most apocalyptic conclusions. But think about the past: how have issues like this usually been resolved? How have you usually fared? Is anyone going to lose their lives? Is it really an emergency?
Go back through your list and apply each question to each event you noted. Write down your responses to each. How did you do? What did you learn about yourself from your responses? It’s important to be as honest as you can here. Do you seem to really fixate on Question #4, i.e. do you tend to think that every event requires your response?
Auditing your list of events from the past week will help you gain a bit of objective clarity around your existing patterns and behaviors. The better that you can see how you often react, the better you can anticipate it in the future.
For those starting out, I recommend turning this question exercise into a written practice. So, if any one of those scenarios (or similar ones) happens during the day, open an unaddressed email or take a scrap of paper and move through the question list sequentially. This works especially well if you already have a response teed up. It might seem artificial, but use these question interventions can help you gain greater clarity on your ingrained habits.
Filtering questions are personal and sometimes situational, but they are ultimately built for you. Let this list serve as a guide but not a dogma. What’s important is that these questions help you think realistically, honestly, and in binary terms. You should feel free to add more to the list, or even reduce the number to those that you think of as most essential to how you operate. Whatever works best for you.
Rumi once wrote that “The art of knowing, is knowing what to ignore.”
The ancient Persian poet Rumi once wrote that “The art of knowing, is knowing what to ignore.” It would seem that hasn’t changed in 800 years.
A stronger FQ will help build up your mindfulness muscle. Whether you are hitting pause on an event or ignoring it entirely, your goal is to use this question tree to slow down your reactivity and approach your response in a much more deliberate and grounded way. What questions you rely on and how you ultimately act are entirely up to you. But my hope is that building this cognitive structure will help you improve the quality of and your ability to filter and respond.
FQ should not only be a conversation with yourself but with your friends and colleagues as well. When you have a network of people who are all thinking about how to respond, you can hold each other accountable and recognize each other’s growth. Often, one person’s exemplary FQ skills can inspire and motivate others to boost their mindfulness too. No one’s FQ doubles overnight, but good examples and good practice will get you there faster.
We spend much of our lives “winging it,” surrendering to “knee-jerk” or “gut-reactions,” or apologizing for “offhand comments.” See, in all of these reactions we aren’t using as much of our “minds” or “hearts” as we’d like. By increasing your Filter Quality (FQ), you can begin to decide how you’ll act based on your values, your goals, and your true sense of integrity.
In our next article we will be speaking with over a dozen leaders from various industries about how they apply FQ in their professional and personal lives.