Monday, May 19, 2014

Why do we attend to some and not others?

Of course this question is subject to a million covariates or in plain language - there's a lot of possible answers.  People may not listen to others based on blood ties or past experience or sadly because of skin color or gender or age or there is simply too much noise.

However, there is research out there, mine adding to the mix, that we do attend to some people more than others. I am using the term attend to because it's more all encompassing than listen to or look at. When we attend to someone else we are giving them our full attention using the senses available to us to notice them. People we attend to more than others often have strong presence. 

I have been interested in presence for a long time since my days as an internal organizational effectiveness practitioner in aerospace. I noticed in meetings that when certain people began to speak everyone else fell quiet, turned toward the speaker and didn't interrupt. Conversely when others would try to speak they were immediately interrupted or not attended to.  Sometimes these same people in the latter group also had the right answer to a serious problem or an important insight that the group totally missed. As an organizational development practitioner, it's my job to notice these things so more often then not I would pull the conversation back to the passed over person so they could get heard for the better of the group and the company.

But I wondered, at this table of smart engineers and scientists, why do some get heard regardless of hierarchy or authority, more than others - consistently?

It's important to add that these people were consistently attended to - not just once. The reason I point this out is because sometimes charismatic people also get attended to. However, if they are only charismatic but don't have authentic presence it's short lived. We tire of them and whatever antics are behind their charisma.  I knew there had to be something more.

My book about presence.
In 2005 I started to study this by interviewing managers, leaders, and individual contributors to find out who in their spheres of influence they attended to most and why. A model of factors emerged that had far less to do the right tone of voice and a fancy suit than the popular literature at that time conveyed. My data was about knowing who you are in general and in the moment. From this I, along with my collaborator, John Ullmen, wrote a book about the topic for managers and created an instrument to measure the strength of someone's presence. In 2006 we started giving this instrument to John's executive MBA students and my executive clients and peers. Over time norms emerged and by 2013 I had more than enough data to refine the instrument using structural equation modeling and multivariate statistics. The exciting news is that the inventory has good reliability, validity and model fit. What all that means in terms of care-abouts for those who take it is that the inventory is actually measuring what it says it does. This statistical testing validated my hard work. 

The resulting instrument I named the Authentic Presence Inventory (API).  The term executive presence doesn't fit anymore - nor does it encompass all the API measures. Executive Presence as a term and a concept hasn't fit the reality of what presence actually is for a long time.  As it was used in the popular literature it was another term for that charismatic leader who epitomized societal norms and dressed right for the part - think Alec Baldwin's character in 30 Rock. Thankfully, genuine presence, authentic presence, is far more complex and diverse. 

Authentic presence is about understanding your purpose in life, being mindful as you move through your life and letting your ego go enough to not only notice others but get feedback from them too.  It's clear from the research that anyone can develop and gain more presence so that they get attended to. A person with authentic presence doesn't suck up all the available light around them - conversely they illuminate the room to allow for the best thinking. We have all met someone like this. If we are lucky we got to work for or with someone like this.  The good news is that anyone can develop authentic presence too. It's not an inborn trait.  And the people who have it, work at keeping it.

Authentic Presence is on my mind a lot this month as I prepare for my workshop on May 30th.  I would love to hear from you about how you have experienced others with authentic presence or better yet, experienced it in yourself. 

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