Working one-on-one with leaders around the world, I find myself inevitably and ultimately focusing on the details of how they communicate: Their tone of voice, their eye contact, their hand gestures and—yes, it matters!—their smiles.
One of my clients got it right a couple weeks ago when he said, after a couple months’ work together, “You know, Pete, I’ve come to realize that I am ‘on’ all the time at work—that my life here is not completely my own, and I need to be more careful about how I come across.”
What my client realized is that the little things can make all the difference in how well a leader communicates.
Top leaders understand this. When the New York Times asked United Talent Agency CEO Jeremy Zimmer what kind of adjustments he had made to his leadership style, Zimmer offered an instructive reply:
“It’s easy to forget how powerful the little things are. The eye roll, the shrug, or if someone’s talking to me and I’m looking at my email. I have to be reminded sometimes that the dynamics in meetings are really powerful, and I have to really be in that moment with that person and engaged in whatever they’re talking about to me.”
It’s the wise leader indeed who understands the power of the little things, that people pay attention not only to what you say, but how you say it—verbally, visually, and emotionally.
Let’s unpack what Zimmer had to say about the “little things”:
The eye roll—Eye-rolling signals contempt, disbelief, or ridicule. Showing contempt for comments, especially in public, hurts morale and discourages open dialogue.
The shrug--While it can simply mean “I don’t know,” the shrug also implies, “I’m indifferent to what I’m hearing,” or “I can’t be bothered to think about this at the moment.” The message is that what someone is saying is unimportant.
Looking at email--Scrolling through email says “Messages sent to me electronically are more of a priority than what you’re saying to me in person now, at this very moment, live and in the flesh.”
The dynamics of meetings—In a meeting, a leader’s attention is the coin of the realm. With a moment’s inattention, a leader can unknowingly alter the dynamics of a room, and a quick slip in focus can send the wrong signal. By the same token, a leader’s undivided attention—even given in disagreement—is a sign of respect and engagement that makes the person speaking feel valued and willing to contribute.
"Being in the moment"--Attention signals openness to ideas, and when a team is eager to bring ideas to the table, great things happen. To give team members and colleagues full attention, leaders should practice being in the moment.
Of course, when leaders juggle so many competing priorities, this is far easier said than done. In my next post I’ll offer tips on how to stay focused and in the moment in spite of all the distractions leaders face every day.