A short attention span

Briefing a group of rookie reporters the Editor said: “You are here to get stories for us but remember that half a story is worse than no story at all.”

The Editor’s warning against inaccurate reporting was not always heeded but in recent years media have gone to a lot of trouble to substantiate what they are going to tell us as news. If they don’t they face heavy penalties in the courts. The Editor was right, of course, but not simply because of possible fines.

A society that disregards truth is not able to communicate effectively. Failure to do so leads to mistakes, corruption, wastage and social breakdown. At some point on that journey it stops being a society. There is, however, an even more important reason for suspecting the ‘short attention span’ merchants. Their judgments are made on insufficient data. They make up their minds on “hunch” – a sometimes invaluable addition to data but no substitute for it. Emotions play too big a part in what they decide.

As a substitute for proper information they use the bullying tactic of speed to demonstrate their (as they see it) brilliant and decisive nature. Their talk is littered with absurdities such as “don’t get mad, get even”, they like to give the impression that they can manipulate others in any way they want. The danger is that if they are in a powerful enough job and they have supporters who back them, not out of conviction but out of a sense of the means justifying the end, sooner or later others will begin to believe them too. Building a society is difficult; corrupting one is easier.

Excluding my teachers and parents I had seventeen bosses in my thirty-nine years as an employee. Four were excellent, acting as mentors and coaches to me and putting up with my tendency to experiment and therefore inevitably often failing. Ten were middling to good but nothing to write home about. Two were mad but delightfully so. I learnt a lot from them and remember them with affection. One was a total bastard. I got him twice.

The lasting memory of the four good ones was their willingness to listen, their ability to ask sensible, not grandstanding, questions and their dedication to being a mentor. They had got over the stage of proving themselves because they believed what they were doing and were willing to learn how to improve it. Their interest in the progress of their younger colleagues was clear. So what has attention span to do with being a good boss?

The answer is ‘everything’. It is still true that each institution and organisation is the lengthening shadow of one person. The boss determines the culture of a business. If his or her attention span is short the business will be flaky and unstable, prone to disasters which short attention-spanners actually quite like. It distracts from the real underlying calamity that is being played out.

Perception, analysis, creativity – the framework for a good CEO – depends on interest. You can learn to become interested but you must first want to be or it won’t work.

In the end, to succeed you must pay attention – at all times.

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