You see it happen with children. They’ve fallen over and are about to cry, and so to stop them reacting you distract them with a toy or something else, so they smile and laugh.
Distractions like that are harmless. As we get older, deliberate distractions can take on a whole new meaning.
If there’s something that someone doesn’t want you to see or hear, they’ll divert your attention elsewhere. It’s the classic situation of ‘nothing to see here – move along’. Of course, that usually means there is plenty to see.
Politicians frequently use this tactic. If there’s something they don’t want you to focus on, they’ll make an outrageous comment on a different topic, make a big announcement, or release details when it’s less likely to get noticed. Actions such as these are designed to shield you from knowing about or focusing on what’s happening.
One of my favourite political dramas, The West Wing, used the expression ‘taking out the trash’. It was where the President’s press secretary released news that was unfavourable to the White House late on a Friday after media deadlines so that the item would get little to no attention. This tactic is harder to use with a 24-hour news cycle, so politicians use different tactics.
If you’re not careful, you will find the same thing happening in your organisation; although it works both ways. If you are a leader you may not want details shared, and team members may not want specific information going back up the hierarchy to the leader.
Distractions can come in many forms, for example:
- Information not flowing up and down the hierarchy as it should
- Information is deliberately filtered and sanitised, so the real message is hidden
- Documents are overly complicated and written in non-plain English, making it hard to determine what matters
- Leaders have gatekeepers who manage who they spend time with and hear from
- A leader over-delegates meetings and therefore isn’t involved with crucial conversations
- Calendars are full with back-to-back meetings, and so there is no time to digest and reflect on what matters and what to prioritise
- Leaders only sharing the good news, and not telling their team members what is happening if it’s bad news (and vice versa)
No doubt you’ll have other ideas that you could include in that list.
Preventing deliberately misleading distractions starts with getting curious and being always open to new ideas, perspectives and asking lots of questions. It also involves seeking alternative sources of information and being clear on the role you can play to help create a transparent and open information environment.
Also, challenge yourself and ask: Are there times when you shield or stop someone else from knowing what they need to know? If so, why, what are the implications and what steps can you take to shift your behaviour?
Author, George Orwell, once said: ‘If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’
It can be hard to be the messenger, and it can be equally hard to hear the message. However, to have healthy and dynamic workplaces, it’s crucial to have both those roles fixed in place and embraced.