Leaders must learn how to navigate attention

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Four years ago, global agency Wunderman partnered with Penn Schoen Berland to launch a study that would coin the term “wantedness.” This study clarified two things that apply well beyond the marketing sphere: first, brands must operate in the culture, not just in their own category; and attention (not choice, price, fear, reach or frequency) was, indeed, the strongest currency.

Michael Goldhaber, a former theoretical physicist, predicted in the mid-1980s (among a long list of internet prophecies that have come true in the decades since) that attention would one day be more valuable than money. So, wherever our precious little attention goes receives some of our power.

While marketers have gummed up the phrase “the attention economy” as a means of alarming one another into messaging, buying and neuro-hacking their way into the limited consumer psyche, psychologist Herbert A. Simon, who coined the phrase, meant for it to accurately describe attention’s scarcity.


The Role of Wantedness

And what gets our attention grows in power. The concept of “wantedness” four years ago argued a new paradigm in which organizations must genuinely share beliefs with consumers to have a shot at gaining their limited attention. But this idea is categorically agnostic.

Our attention goes (like currency does) to what we deem worthwhile. Attention is, in essence, what matters to us.

The concept of “wantedness” is playing out between leaders and teams at work, too. Leaders want their people’s attention on their work. Yet many of us are still working remotely with e-learners, spouses and roommates splintering our attention. The call for leaders to see, hear and pay attention to their people is now.

I recently spoke with a group of leaders about the most important ways we can navigate the fractional attention dynamic of work now. Here are three ideas to steal:


Leaders (like brands) must operate in the culture, not just in their category.

Coming out of 2020, leaders everywhere are leaning into the possibility the pandemic presented a once-in-a-generation chance to reimagine freeing ourselves from old, office-bound, 9-to-5 models, while also restoring attention to the sacred aspects of our culture. Watch for ways in which innovative leaders across industries are giving attention to their people, despite challenging circumstances.


Business problems, like cultural ones, are also attentional.

Goldhaber explains, “In an attention economy … one is nearly always paying, getting or seeking attention.” When people pay attention to their work, the business receives the power. A leader’s job is to pay attention to the people who will yield the results. And this empowers the people. While giving attention is limited, receiving it is not. Leaders must center their attention on the people strategy by measuring job fit, designing teams with shared values, empowering managers who can provide clarity, and building high-engagement work cultures.


Whatever receives attention receives power.

Before we begin eliminating external noise, leaders begin with self-awareness. The things we focus on are often a function of our inherent personalities. I give my attention, for example, to whatever ball is about to hit the floor, which is a predictable behavior driven by my inherent and measurable motivating needs.


Leaders who understand how to navigate attention strategically use a predictive-assessment tool to evaluate which hard-wired needs will drive their own focus and then also become aware of that insight across their team members. Each unique personality naturally gives attention to the things that meet its needs. Those things ought to align with the attention your business needs.

Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote,

“Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are.”


Not a prophecy anymore. Our attention more accurately shows us who we’ll become. Where will you spend it next? And, how will you navigate attention?



Want to hear more from Leadership Consultant Mandy Haskett? Read her previous article “Four resolutions to become better at change”.

This article originally appeared in the Indianapolis Business Journal on March 19, 2021.