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What It Takes To Overcome Distractions In The Workplace

A lesson from Olympic rowers reveals a powerful message for leaders on how they can help their employees to overcome workplace distractions.

As the final week of the summer period slowly comes to an end, I have to admit to feeling a mix bag of emotions. As much I as enjoy summer and all the activities and beautiful weather it brings, I’m looking forward to returning to a more regular routine both at work and at home.

After all, given the blue skies seen outside the office window and the ease with which family activities can be planned with children being on summer vacation break, the summer months do present quite a number of distractions that can impede one’s productivity and drive to push ahead.

Of course, in today’s modern, digital workspace, there are far more and at times, far greater distractions than the sight of a sunny blue sky outside your window.

In most cases, when it comes to things that impact the overall productivity of employees, the common tendency is to view meetings and emails as the biggest impediments.

And yet, according to a recent CareerBuilder survey of over 2 000 managers, the biggest distractions employees face in today’s workplaces are text messaging/using their smartphones, followed by surfing the web.

And the impact of these distractions on workplace productivity is quite significant, as 75% of employers state that their organizations lose two or more hours of productivity every day because their employees are distracted.

To make matters worse, the leaders surveyed in this study noted that this loss in productivity leads to a compromised quality of work, missed deadlines, and even negative repercussions in employer-employee relationships and as well customer relationships.

Now the typical response in light of such findings is to limit the usage of smartphones at work or to restrict access to what sites employees can surf while on the job.

While this might solve the issue of employees using their smartphones and the internet for non-work related matters, it overlooks the underlying issue behind these behaviours and what leaders should really be doing to help their employees develop the means to overcome the distractions they’ll inevitably face while at work.

And as with most things in life, the best way for us to appreciate what we should be doing is by looking at the lessons learned by others about what it takes to succeed in the face of various obstacles.

For the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, renowned sportscaster Charlie Jones was assigned to cover the rowing and kayaking events at the Lake Lanier venue. Although Charlie had past experience covering various sporting events, he wasn’t very familiar with the rowing/kayaking event, and so he spent much of his time at this Summer Olympic Games speaking to rowers from various countries to learn more about their sport.

Now one thing that Charlie was particularly interested in learning more about was what did the rowers do if it rains or if there’s a strong wind on the day of their competition. Time and time again, Charlie heard the same answer – “that’s outside my boat”.

In this simple reply, the Olympic rowers were telling Charlie that they don’t get distracted by these external factors because they are internally-driven by a vision or shared purpose that matters to them. This is something that they genuinely care about and consequently, they want to make sure that they do everything in their power to make it a reality.

And this simple truth reveals the key for what leaders should really be doing to help address distractions in the workplace: what drives us to overcome the distractions we face is working towards a goal that matters to us [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter].

Again, consider the top distractions in the workplace – they’re not issues that are outside of the control of your employees, like noisy co-workers or numerous meetings that interrupt their workflow. Instead, it’s things that are ‘inside their boat’ – it’s things that they can control and manage in order to improve the contributions they make to your organization.

So the fact that organizations are losing two or more hours of daily productivity is not simply due to the ubiquitous nature of text messaging and internet access in our digital, always-on world. Rather, it’s because your employees are making a choice that reveals how invested they are in the work they do and even in the relationships they have with others.

Indeed, we have to remember that the choice is ours to make as to whether we are truly present and engaged in the conversations we have with those we lead or with those around us, or if our focus is instead on the notifications we receive on our smartphones or on perusing our various social media channels to find out what others are up to.

That’s why we are so drawn to charismatic leaders like Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, and Martin Luther King, Jr. – their focus was not on themselves and on what they wanted to achieve. Rather, their focus was on those around them; on what they cared about and how to connect it to what they wanted to achieve. That’s why many people who’ve had the opportunity to speak with these leaders often talk about how these renowned leaders would make people feel like they were the most important person in the room, regardless of their role or contribution.

Through their examples, we find yet another key factor for how we can ensure that our employees will be able to overcome the distractions around them. Namely, that if we want our employees to be self-motivated, we have to ask ourselves what do they care about? [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]

What are the things that matter to them, that make them want to bring their best efforts each and every day because they are invested in the vision behind these collective efforts? These are the kinds of questions that are very much inside your boat, meaning that it’s your responsibility to address them and to figure out what’s the right answer.

The simple truth is limiting smartphone usage and blocking access to certain websites only serves to address the visible symptoms that we often associate with distracted employees and the subsequent loss in workplace productivity.

But if we truly want to bring out the best in those we lead, we have to do more than this because we have to show our employees that we do care about what’s inside our boat. We have to be mindful of the fact that when we create goals for our employees, we need to answer the question – why does this matter? [Twitter-logo-smallShare on Twitter]

Our employees have to be able to intuitively understand why this is important and why they should care. After all, the undeniable truth for why employees would rather text or surf the web than contribute their best efforts to your organization’s goals is because they don’t care.

And this is something that we can find proof of in how successful people when faced with the same conditions and the same environmental factors are somehow capable of overcoming these distractions that surround them, and simply focus on doing what’s necessary to help them achieve their goals.

That potential and that drive to tune out the noise and simply focus on what matters exists in each of us. Indeed, there are far too many studies to list here that have proven that the key to driving employee engagement is giving people work that matters. Of encouraging them to be intrinsically motivated in how they approach their work because they understand for themselves the value of what they do and why we do what we do.

Again, remember that the biggest distractions your employees face that will impede their productivity are also the easiest ones for them to overcome. The caveat, of course, being that if we want our employees to keep their focus on delivering their best efforts to our organization, we have to make sure that we are providing them with opportunities to do work that provides a sense of meaning and purpose, both for themselves and for those they serve.


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