The art of observation: The silent skill of effective managers

Even though Grace prefers warm, sunny days, she is always aware of her surroundings. When you are dissatisfied with your environment, do you continue to observe all you can? Or do you stop appreciating other aspects of the situation?

Grace prefers warm, sunny days, but even when she’s faced with mounds of snow and cold temps, she is always aware of her surroundings. She’s constantly scanning the area for sights and smells of her environment. Sometimes it creates fear for her (a walker going the house) and sometimes joy (a bone buried underneath a mound of snow). By being observant, she is better prepared to deal with what’s next. How about you?

Are you diligent about being aware of what’s going on around you? Or instead, is your focus on the next task you must do? Or the next thing you need to say?

As a manager, your powers of observation can be what makes you successful — or the absence of observation skills can render you completely ineffectual. If you are so intent on pushing your own agenda onto others, without observing how your words and actions are being perceived by others, you will miss the subtleties that will make it possible for you to achieve your goals.

Imagine this hypothetical example. Assume you are the team leader for an exciting new product launch. As the manager in charge of design and development, you schedule a meeting with the designers and engineers, bursting to share all your knowledge, ideas, and enthusiasm. Others are excited, too, but they start to voice some challenges with a few facets of the project. These are minor points that don’t concern you at all, you see them as picky details compared to the big picture of the project. You assure them these things won’t be a problem, and move on to the next topic. You do most of the talking and people stop participating, starting to glance at smartphone messages or doodling all over the agenda you distributed. At the end of the meeting, employees file out of the room, with no emotion, even perhaps disinterest in the whole thing. You hardly notice because you think the meeting went so well.

I imagine you can easily see what just happened. By missing key signs that others weren’t feeling the same about the project, several things happened:

  • This manager displayed disregard for the employees’ opinions
  • This manager was closed to hearing critical information that could be instrumental in the implementation
  • This manager demoralized the entire team by showing a lack of respect for the points being addressed and not encouraging ideas from everyone

The long-term implications are huge. In one short meeting, this manager plowed through her own needs, missed obvious signs of discontent, and lost the opportunity to get the team completely jazzed about this project. And just as detrimental, the manager undermined the overall success by ignoring key information that could jeopardize the schedule or perhaps the quality of the product.

And, of course, that was never the intention. This energetic manager just wanted everyone else on board, ready to blaze ahead. But not everyone saw it the same way. And because signs were missed, the team has started down a very unproductive — and frustrating — path.

Here are some simple suggestions that will help you be observant:

1. Be silent. Take a moment from your agenda and just look, listen, take it all in. Be aware of body language, which provides a wealth of clues about how a person is feeling about a situation. You can even do this if you’re on the phone: listen for the tone of voice, or whether you get any response at all.

2. In every message you deliver (whether in person or electronically), you should ask for feedback. If you get it, don’t shut it down. Explore it more. If it’s taking too much meeting time, make a point to follow-up in a timely manner, and be sure to take enough time to fully address the topic.

3. Remember that no feedback is feedback. Silence does not necessarily mean agreement. It’s just as important to explore a quiet response as it is a vocal one. You will always benefit by engaging in more conversation; it strengthens the relationship and it provides data you might not have learned otherwise.

4. Keep in mind that each person has their own individual way of looking of things, which may be different from the way you look at things. If you’re a big picture person and the other person focuses on the details, you already have some potential gaps of understanding. However, taking advantage of those different views can help you arrive at the best direction to accomplish your common goal. Assessments can be a great way for you to become aware of your own style and the styles of others.

5. As a way to gauge your overall effectiveness, think back on recent conversations. How much can you remember about the other person’s reaction? What was their body language? What was the tone of voice? How did they end the discussion? The level of detail you can recall will be an indicator for how much you were observing.

And last, but not least, take your lead from an animal in your life. There is no doubt that they are watching your every move as well as the entire environment around them. Animals soak up all the nuances, signs, and signals of what is around them.

Your ability to be observant isn’t just a nice thing to do for those around you. It will allow you to respond appropriately, to all situations, which positively impacts your effectiveness of a leader. Your awareness will allow you to address obstacles that you may not have otherwise even knew existed! In short, your success depends on it. 

For Grace, she’s always looking for the next bone. And she usually finds it. What about you? What did you observe today? Leave a comment and tell us what your keen observation skills taught you today about a co-worker. 

Grace and I would love to hear from you!

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  1. Tammy Lenski on February 28, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Robin, this is terrific advice (and I love that photo of Grace!). To your very good list of 5 recommended practices, I might add one more: Ask, “Have I missed anything?” Not only does it invite others to fill in something you missed, but it also conveys that your intention is to be more inclusive and observant.

    • Robin Eichert on February 28, 2013 at 12:30 pm

      Tammy, this is a wonderful addition to the list! I’m so glad you added it here. I agree, it does signal a very inclusive intention. That picture of Grace really hung with me, too. Perhaps because she looks so peaceful, yet also in heavy concentration to pull in every piece of information she possibly could — all while being relaxed and open to it.

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