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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Feb 25, 2022


Attention is a limited resource, but clear goals and regular feedback can help us to stay focused.



Welcome to episode 126 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we are exploring how clear goals and regular feedback can help us to stay focused.

Attention is a limited resource. It can be hard to maintain your attention on one task over an extended period of time. You can think of attention like a tank that is gradually depleted over time. Even when people report that they are engaged with a task, the research demonstrates that their attention will wane. The person may not even notice this happening, but their thoughts and attention will start to drift to unrelated areas. This is particularly a problem in activities that require sustained attention where missing a rare event can lead to significant negative outcomes. This includes jobs like air traffic control and security screening. These jobs require individuals to always focus on the task at hand, but can also become repetitive and boring over time. But there are some ways leaders can help their people to maintain engagement and attention, as highlighted by recently published research from the University of Texas.

Researcher Matthew Robison and team put participants through their paces on tasks that required high levels of attention. They varied the clarity of goals and level of feedback received. The researchers found that while people maintain attention better with clear goals, it is regular feedback that really makes a difference. Combining clear goals and frequent feedback appear to help people to maintain their attention over a longer period of time. This worked even more effectively than offering cash payments. Feedback by itself was helpful in reducing task-unrelated thoughts, leading to less distraction.

As a leader, this yet another example of how clear goals and regular feedback help. But there are limits. The researchers caution against setting up jobs and tasks that require sustained human attention. We need to design work that allows for reduced attention over time with frequent breaks and task variety. Have a great week.