25 Jul FQ Part II: How Great Leaders Cut Out The Noise
This article is part of an ongoing series about Filter Quality (FQ). For the first part in the series, click here.
With every click, ping, and buzz, our attention spans are dropping. In professional life, this assault on our attentive energies is emerging as a hidden crisis in workplaces around the world. The last few years haven’t been kind either. In our new world of virtual work patterns we have all been asked to “integrate” our lives into a 24-hour churn of timezones, technologies, and tightening constraints. It is no wonder that over 40% of working people say they are burned out at work—a number on the rise.
While many leaders possess the requisite smarts to stand up to these new daily demands, transformative leaders—those that possess the biggest impact—are particularly adept at slowing their reactions, prioritizing their attention, and separating what seems urgent from what is truly important. This skill is something we at Careerprint call Filter Quality or FQ.
FQ describes how well an individual can effectively prioritize and focus on the many material, psychological, real, and imagined provocations that happen in the course of a day. Our first article in this series showed readers how to strengthen their FQ through a set of simple, intentional questions designed to help people rethink and reframe. In this second part we’d like to see what FQ looks like firsthand, through the experiences of senior professionals from across sectors and industries.
The Growing Deficit
“What would I tell myself in 2018? Turn the communicator off.” A senior tech executive, Ernst is right to call out one of the first and most obvious challenges to building a strong FQ: our devices. New coworking tools are only making digital burnout worse. Overcoming this comes down to intentionality. “I have to slow down my approach,” he says, something that Jason M., a senior leader in financial services, agrees with: “I need to slow down the events from hitting me.” Both understand that speed kills when it comes to FQ.
But our buzzing devices are part of a much larger story. “We live in an attention society,” says Chris M., a seasoned entrepreneur. He understands that frazzled, multi-tasked, minds have gotten this way not by accident but by design. We have transitioned to an Attention Economy—a global marketplace where every inch of your daily lives has been bottled, sold, and distributed. At work this looks like increased calls for productivity and efficiency. Yet while we have all been working harder, American productivity has alarmingly decreased quarter-over-quarter in 2023. As Chris M. explains, “In a surplus of information, there is a deficit of attention.”
More effort is yielding worsening results. While processing power and AI algorithms improve by the second, there is a biological limit to our capacity to work–especially when what we do requires creativity, analysis, and novel ideas. While modern organizations are engineered to produce greater efficiency, very few have been designing workplaces, teams, or individuals around the constraints of human capacity. Boundaries aren’t found, they are built. This is why FQ is so important.
“I’ve failed so much at it before,” says Al H., a senior executive at one of the largest banks in the U.S. “Rolling into the house after just getting off a long work call, I’ve gone into the kitchen and just started battling,” he explains. It’s a regrettable, but natural scenario for many. Years of research have proven that an individual’s cognitive resources are finite. In Psychology, this phenomenon is called “Ego Depletion.” The harder we concentrate, work, or keep ourselves inline, the harder we will invariably crash later in the day.
Recognizing the damage his poor FQ was wreaking on his family, Al H. made a simple but effective change. Instead of carrying his work stress into the kitchen, “I will go back to my bedroom and almost just defragment for twenty or thirty minutes,” he says. “I have to turn it off and almost start over—reset.”
In a surplus of information, there is a deficit of attention.
Resetting Our Minds
If there is a habit you could build to strengthen your FQ, it might be doing nothing at all. “I need to have peace within the storm in order to better understand what I have control over. I work to gain this peace through silence,” says Jose R., a senior VP at one of the nation’s largest banks. We rarely speak to listen. Quite the opposite, we usually rush to action before gathering the right information, checking our biases, or giving space for others. This kind of response–so frequently seen at senior levels–exists only to appease the leader’s ego. Yet the irony is that it often produces incomplete or ineffective results. As the famous proverb goes, “as a wise man once said, nothing at all.”
This idea of pausing, resetting, and reframing is a great way to begin to strengthen your FQ. Chris M. calls this a “strategic pause,” something that he relies on throughout his work day. “It’s about slowing the game down,” he explains. “Good leaders can slow the game down and make cognitive decisions to filter. Your first reaction might be to just unload. But you say to yourself ‘where is the good here?’ Then you pause, consider the source, and ask ‘will you have any control of the outcome?”
Jose R. agrees. “Society tells us to respond quickly and impulsively,” he says, pointing to our gross impatience in the workplace. “But the opposite is needed. You have to breathe. Some events are irrational—they don’t deserve a response.”
Jose’s lesson is anything but trivial. Whether or not an event deserves your response was a fundamental question posed by all of the leaders we spoke with. But this attitude is as much about your own time as it is about the effect of your actions on the people and teams around you. “With emails, my delay allows my team to handle it,” says Al. H. “And that builds trust.” Donna T., a retired financial services C-suite executive summarizes it best: “ “Sometimes leaving it to others is the best solution.”
“Can you tell the difference between the shiny objects and the real priorities?” For Donna, the heart of her FQ practice comes down to perception and misperception. “I call this ‘shiny object syndrome.’” In Shiny Object Syndrome leaders–especially new ones–chase after each new urgent priority as it pops into their inbox.
Unchecked, this kind of behavior leads to a negative pattern where each new demand distracts from the last, producing a growing and overwhelming set of activities and demands that can leave any leader functionally incapacitated. “You have to avoid the big spiral,” she says. “You have to catch yourself in order to turn the tide.”
To do so Donna focuses less on priorities and more on purpose. “How can I add value?” Many new or insecure leaders might automatically believe that their intervention is paramount. But seasoned leaders who have led successful teams will often grow into the servant-model of leadership. “If a report comes to me with an issue, I will sometimes ask for clarification, ‘are you venting or looking for an answer or action?’” she says. “Sometimes just listening to the event is all that needs to be done.”
Can you tell the difference between the shiny objects and the real priorities?
Reframing questions help you prioritize events as you perceive them. The senior leaders we spoke with shared some of the questions that they rely on for guidance.
“Do I have enough data to respond?
– Mike C.
“How important is this to me on my personal scale?
– Mike C.
“Does this event expect a response from me?”
– John S.
“Is this one of my priorities for the day/week?”
– Jason M.
“How is this event going to impact me tomorrow?”
– Jason M.
“How is this connected to my purpose?”
“Will I add value (for me or someone I care for) if I respond?”
– Donna T.
“Is this my problem to solve?”
– Cat C.
“What are the expectations of the source of this event?”
– Jeremy R.
“Will my response have a positive impact based on my emotional state?”
– John F.
CONNECTED TO PURPOSE
“Sometimes we think that events can be fatal, so we respond to defend and to prove,” says Ernst, a tech exec. “Really it should be the opposite: why am I letting someone who is not a priority in my life cause me to feel like I have to respond?” Ernst hits on an important point that can be easily overlooked. We can blame external factors or other people for our stress and workplace misery. But often we have given these forces power by accepting their version of reality–by dancing to their music in order to either prove ourselves or defend our territories or reputations. Notice how these kinds of responses so rarely have anything to do with legitimate work or outcomes. They come down to pride, status, and ego.
Ernst points to the Eisenhower Matrix to help illustrate his point. This simple mindfulness tool is a 2×2 table that has the user plot tasks by urgent v. not urgent, and important v. not important. For professionals like Ernst, it is all too easy to take urgency as the imperative, letting the more meaningful, valuable, and long-term aspects of your day slide to the bottom of your prioritization list. When we get to Friday we realize that we’ve been chasing windmills and herding cats instead of making the positive long-term progress we were hoping for. “We’ve been socialized to stay busy,” Ernst says, “so that we won’t have to look inward. You can’t add time to the day, but you can be present in it.”
Being simply present during the day is a central tenant for Casey D., a financial services executive and life coach. She has a formal model for this. “I have a top-three list of focus areas,” she explains. She will intentionally set her mindset for the month, week, and day, thinking of this practice like she’s a master planner. “Every month I adjust where needed but I am super clear in the top three I need to respond to.”
In effect, Casey is practicing the Eisenhower Matrix in advance, already defining what is important to her early, so that each new event demand does not demand her immediate analysis. This is an important lesson for many. While we will inevitably be derailed by urgent requests, if we agree on and set a framework for our day or month it makes the process of triaging those requests all the easier.
You will continue to suffer if you have an emotional reaction to everything that is said to you. True power is sitting back and observing things with logic. True power is restraint. If words control you that means everyone else can control you. Breathe and allow things to pass."
- Stoic Proverb
SWINGING FOR THE FENCES
“Have the confidence to drive your own priorities and the confidence to say ‘no’ when it doesn’t match” says Cat C. an entrepreneur and design leader. Her perspective is shared by many of the leaders we spoke with: that the ability to filter, prioritize, and choose comes down not to just to mental acuity but self-esteem.
“When you don’t have a lot of confidence you swing at every pitch,” explains Jeremy R. a senior banking leader. “Don’t waste your swings. Like time, you only have a finite amount of them.” Many of us choose to be overwhelmed because we believe that we are signaling value, effort, and importance to our teams and reports. But by swinging at every pitch that comes across the plate, more often than not we are striking ourselves out: taking value away from the people and ideas that need it the most. “Store your energy for the pitches that make sense so you can blast them out of the park,” he says. “Other players will respect you more because of it.”
To master your filtering skills, you need to extend this practice beyond the workplace. If you struggle to judge, prioritize, and find silence in your personal life, chances are that you will struggle at work–and vice versa. Harmony and balance come when you understand that the call is coming from inside the house–that you alone have the ability to solve your own stress and frustration. But to do so also means breaking ingrained behaviors and bad habits. It means that some people may potentially feel disappointed or upset when their demands have fallen on your priority list. But this is a sign of progress. “A confident leader with a strong FQ can ignore the critics,” summarizes John F., a C-suite leader in financial services.
“You can’t assume your FQ is going to get better with time,” says Jason M. “You have to work at it. Everything you are worried about is going to be ok but you have to figure out your mechanism to let things go.” Al H. says “FQ is an awareness, it is a spectrum, you can get better at it”. Ultimately, we hope to show you that a stronger FQ does not mean fewer opportunities or more frustrated relationships. It means giving time to what is truly essential in your life. As I’m fond of saying, time is our greatest asset. FQ helps you protect it.