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Distracted Boss? Break the Attention Gap!

Distracted Boss? Break the Attention Gap!

Your boss was about to give you a new assignment, but took "just a sec" to dust off her keyboard, finish a call, send an e-mail, and monitor a couple stock quotes. Then she asks, "Did you say something?" while staring blankly as if she's forgotten your name. In fact, you, too, are clueless, as she never did say what your assignment really was.

Is this just multi-tasking on steroids, or are you on the lower rung of the "to do" list? Most likely, bosses like this are suffering from work overload, unable to strategize and prioritize. When your Terrible Office Tyrant (TOT), a.k.a. bad or childish boss, has the attention span of a fly, you endure unnecessary stress, and decreased productivity - not helping you, your boss, or the company.

According to recent research, your boss's short attention span may indeed be aggravated by multitasking. Researchers at Stanford University have found that people with many distractions, i.e., from multiple streams of electronic information - have more memory problems than those who don't. Multi-taskers have more difficulty paying attention, and much to the surprise of the researchers, trouble switching from one task to another, the study says.

What You Can Do

Like a child whipping wildly on playground swings, your boss's mind can jump from one point to another, but never really be still long enough to concentrate on one matter at a time with full attention. Short of pulling the plug on your TOT's surge protector or from his MP3-playing podcast (not recommended!), there are other ways to draw your boss's attention back to the matter at hand.

What works with small children you are minding, overwhelmed with the world's possibilities - can also work with your esteemed, but often overwhelmed boss, who's supposed to be "in charge" and alert. This is not meant to be patronizing, but you can help your boss manage you. These are transferable, empowering skills at any level that can boost your "career currency" and value:

• The main task at hand is to help distracted managers regain focus. Rather than stand around waiting for your boss to concentrate, plan a preemptive strike. E-mail a draft of mutual goals for your meeting in advance, and request a response. Follow up with an agenda: late in the afternoon a day in advance, and first thing in the morning that day. Then during the meeting, make sure your Terrible Office Tyrant (TOT) has a printed copy, and stays on point.

• Keep meetings with your boss as short as humanly possible. Time can run astray with a distracted TOT, so it's up to you to bring the discussion back to the original agenda. An effective way to do that is with a "bridge," such as "That brings up an interesting point about X," or "that reminds be of a key topic we have today on Y."

• If the distraction is driving you to distraction, e.g., you find yourself doodling "endlessly" on a notepad while your TOT becomes a serial call-taker, leave a brief, polite note that you need to leave, such as "Client call in 2 minutes, call u later."

• Another way to keep his attention longer is to be more engaging in your presentation. You don't have to hire a juggler or clown - but you don't have to be serious and dry, either. Oftentimes, employees feel they must follow the demeanor or personality of their TOT, when in fact a very serious or shy boss might appreciate some lightheartedness (just choose your timing wisely). In your meetings, be concise, because you never know when the next interruption will occur; use attention-getting graphics, lots of energy (which is contagious); and make it interactive, if possible tying at least your opener to matters of interest to your TOT.

• If your meeting involves multiple people, ask participants to please turn off their cell phones. If you've called the conference that your boss is attending, you still must take control. State its purpose and if it wanders due to others, pull it back on track with such phrases as, "That's a great idea for open items at the end of today's agenda." By that time, most are too tired either to address or remember it. At best, they'll ask to re-schedule a meeting on it.

• Incentives work well with humans of every age and in any venue; everyone likes a reward. Your boss would probably like some time alone for multitasking at will. Offer, "If I could have five minutes of your time right now, I won't need to touch base again until next week."

• Hold meetings away from your boss's office, where possible, so that your TOT will be less distracted from people, electronics and other interruptions. Having candies or snacks available in your office is always a draw for anyone to meet in your more controlled domain.

When you have a distracted, inundated boss you can be the "parent" and have your TOT saying, "That was something!" not, "Did you say something?"