Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

4 Questions To Help Your Team Keep Their Focus

A few weeks ago, I had one of those stretch of days where Monday ended up blurring into Friday. This wasn’t because of something specific from that particular week, but more a result of an escalation in busyness that had started building up over the previous weeks. Naturally, this frantic pace was beginning to take its toll, and I knew that I should be making more time to relax and catch my breath to assess the situation. Ironically, in trying to manage this growing pile on my To-do list, the first thing I started cutting back on were those very things that I needed the most.

One night, after spending the last couple of days working at this accelerated pace, I was preparing my kids’ lunch for the next school day. While making their sandwiches, I realized that I had accidentally buttered both sides of the same slice of bread. It was a silly mistake, one that gave my wife a good laugh at my expense. And yet, it also ended up being the very thing I needed – a wake-up call to recognize that I’d been so busy simply reacting to what I was facing that I was neglecting the importance of reflecting on what tasks were the ones that most needed my attention in order for me to reach whatever goals I had for that week.

I realized that part of the problem is our tendency to associate completing numerous tasks with being productive; in other words, the more tasks you aim to complete, the more productive you supposedly are. While this may have been the case 20-30 years ago, thanks to today’s technological advances giving us emails, instant messaging, social media sites, and so forth, we’re basically being inundated with a continual stream of information which shifts our attention to sorting these streams instead of focusing on filtering and processing only the key information we need for work.

On an individual level, it can be a challenge at times to keep track of what we should be working on to achieve our goals. In a team setting, this issue is even more critical to a team’s ability to reach their shared goal, as having one team member losing their focus will impact not just their own efficacy, but potentially that of the whole team. This can also cause a weakening of team morale if other team members feel they need to pick up the slack in order to keep the team’s momentum going.

So how can leaders help their team maintain their focus when facing this ever-present, and at times growing, tide of information drawing your team’s attention? Here are four questions that leaders can ask to assess whether your team is on track to reaching your objectives.

1. How does it contribute to your shared goal?
This is probably the most obvious question, and yet for some reason, it’s the first thing that we tend to lose perspective on as we grapple with these increasing demands on our time and attention. As such, a good place to start evaluating the work being done by your team members is to determine how critical it is to your organization’s ability to reach their objectives.

Obviously, it’s important that a leader helps their team to move toward implementing ideas instead of simply spending time discussing them or making numerous plans. However, it’s also vital that a leader makes sure that the tasks being executed by their team are the ones that will help them the most in obtaining their goals, as opposed to simply trying to keep the tide waters back.

2. How is it impacting your team’s performance?
These days, it’s a given that people will check their emails and other communication outlets to see if there is anything important that requires their attention. And now, thanks to advances in mobile technology and the growth of social media usage, people now have a greater ability than ever before to communicate, share and participate in group efforts. While these developments have clearly brought about many advantages, they have also caused their own share of problems.

Although it’s important to make sure your team is kept informed about any information or discussions that might impact their work and ability to function, this doesn’t mean that they need to be involved in every conversation. As the leader of your team, it’s important that you evaluate not only how these communications might benefit your team, but also how it might be detrimental to their performance, by taking their focus off of what they need to be working on in order for your team to achieve their goals.

3. How much time do they need to allocate to this task?
When you look at most recipes, in addition to listing all the necessary ingredients, they often include a rough estimate of how long it will take to prepare that particular dish. By providing the “preparation” and “cook” times, we’re able to figure out if we’d have enough time to prepare this meal or if we should consider making something else.

In business settings, though, we tend to focus on only one time measurement and that is the deadline. While this is an important time factor that your team needs to pay attention to, it’s also critical that you encourage them to determine how long a given task will take them to do. This will allow your team members to not only better plan what tasks they have the time for on any given day, it will also help them to make more realistic expectations of how much they can get done when working on a given assignment. Just like with recipes, it’s important that you make your team aware of how much prep time they’ll need before the dish will be ready to go in the oven.

4. Are you making time to pause, review and adjust your strategy based on what your team has accomplished so far?
Most times when we make goals, it’s not simply for the week or the month. Instead, it’s often a long-term goal that we realize will take months, even at times years for us to be able to reach. Having a goal so far in the distance, it’s very easy to start losing track of how the unanticipated events or issues that happen every day can suddenly make what seemed to be a straight road become one full of curves and steep slopes. That’s why it’s important that we make regular time to stop and assess our progress, of reviewing the work we’re currently doing and extrapolating out to see how it impacts our ability to reach that target in the distance.

With the explosive growth in communication technologies, it’s never been easier for people to connect, share information and collaborate on projects. The flip side of this coin, though, is that we’re also increasingly at risk of diverting our efforts and resources to simply managing these interactions and information flow as opposed to focusing on those tasks that will help our organization press ahead.

As Benjamin Franklin said – Never confuse motion for action.

In today’s wired world, it’s critical that leaders remain above this onslaught to make sure that they can help their employees ride the information waves toward their shared objective and not simply paddling along to try to stay afloat.

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17 Comments » | Tags: , , , , , , | June 21, 2010 by |

  1. On June 21st, 2010 at 1:17 PM Xurxo Vidal said:


    I can totally relate to your experience. While I haven’t ever buttered both sides of the same slice of bread, I’ve clearly felt shell shocked and become absent-minded because I had too much on my mind and plate and done similarly silly things.

    I completely agree with you that we too often don’t take a time out to step back and reflect on where we are and if we’re still on the right track or just “doing” because that’s what we’ve conditioned ourselves to do.

    A healthy balance between thinking and doing is the key to success I think. If not you may have worked so hard to realize that you missed tons of opportunities because you didn’t slow down or stop to lift your head and look around and change course if necessary.

    I’ve been forcing myself more lately to take breaks, clear my head and exercise more often so that I strike up a healthier mental and physical balance. Easier said than done, but taking it one day at a time with small manageable goals really helps.

  2. On June 21st, 2010 at 2:20 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Xurxo for your comment. It’s amazing how we often we have trouble with the act of doing something deliberately, as opposed to simply doing something because that’s the way we’ve always done things. That’s why the first question one needs to ask is how does this task, this effort aid your team, your organization, or even yourself in reaching your goals or objectives.

    Asking yourself this question can be very illuminating in getting you to rethink not only how you do things, but more importantly what you choose to do with your day.

    Thanks again, Xurxo for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  3. On June 21st, 2010 at 2:46 PM Gwyn Teatro said:

    Another good post Tanveer, and one that makes me think about the importance of the management function of leadership.

    Often we talk about the *sexier* aspects of leadership because well, I think we have a tendency to glorify them a bit and they're more fun to chew on. But, to me, leadership is also about performing such services as gatekeeping, (helping people keep a clear head and focus by getting rid of a lot of busy things to do that might be getting in the way). This is where the lines between the leadership and management function start to blend. Each is important to not only getting things done, but also to the well-being of the team.

    And, by the way, buttering your bread on both sides ensures that if you should drop it, it will definitely land on the side that is buttered. 🙂

  4. On June 21st, 2010 at 7:50 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Gwyn; I'm glad to hear you enjoyed this piece. I agree with you that there is a tendency to focus on the more 'glamorous' aspects of leadership; then again, this is often the case whenever there's an examination of any type of human activity. As for buttering both sides of the same slice, I have no doubt that it will be added to my wife's “Silly Things My Husband Does” list to regale our friends about my latest shenanigans. Of course, as you said, at least I'd know that it's the buttered side that'll end up landing on the floor.

    Thanks again for your comment, Gwyn. I appreciate your adding your thoughts to this discussion.

  5. On June 22nd, 2010 at 7:06 AM Kelly Ketelboeter said:

    Outstanding post Tanveer!

    I love the four questions you pose to help keep team members and leaders focused on what's most important. Not only are we inundated with information on a daily basis I think sometimes we are simply going through the motions. We don't stop to think about what we are doing, how we are doing it and the impact it has no matter how small the task. I know I find myself sometimes simply going through the motions just to get through the task and/or the day! Stopping for that reflection is key.

    Thanks for sharing and for the laugh!


  6. On June 22nd, 2010 at 8:02 AM Meredith Bell said:

    On-target and timely post, Tanveer. You're so right about the distractions we have now and the kinds of activities that can fool us into thinking we're being productive. These 4 questions are excellent. Great food for thought, as always!

  7. On June 22nd, 2010 at 5:03 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    @Kelly – Thanks Kelly; appreciate that. It is so easy for us to fall into that rut of convenience, of doing things a certain way simply because it’s what works for that particular moment. Naturally, this is why many teams and organizations eventually find themselves so far off track because they haven’t taken the time to ask questions like the ones above to figure out if what they’re doing really makes sense, as opposed to simply being the easier route to take.

    Glad you got a laugh from this bread-buttering goof of mine. The other funny thing about this mistake is that while my wife was laughing over how I could do something so silly as buttering this slice of bread on both sides, the very first thing that popped into my head was “Oh, I have to write a blog post about this”. I guess Newton had his apple and well, I had a piece of bread with butter on both sides.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this, Kelly, and I’m glad it made you think and laugh.

    @Meredith – Thanks for the kind words, Meredith. It’s amazing how many distractions we face on a daily basis thanks to the very technology that is supposed to make us more efficient. That’s why I think these 4 questions are so useful because it forces leaders and even individuals to really assess what they are doing in terms of whether it’s actually helping them reach their goals.

    Thanks again, Meredith, for the wonderful compliments. I really appreciate it.

  8. On June 23rd, 2010 at 1:12 PM Richard said:

    Great Post. If you are a workaholic then you may need to learn time management. Set priorities at the beginning of each day before you start responding to emails or answering the phone. You will be more effective during the day if you set priorities.

  9. On June 23rd, 2010 at 4:48 PM John Haydon said:

    Tanveer – I love Ben Franklin’s quote “Never confuse motion for action.” It – and your post – implies that having clear goals actually saves time and resources. Thanks for the nugget!

  10. On June 23rd, 2010 at 7:22 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    @Richard – Thanks Richard. I agree that setting priorities is important; however, what we have to pay close attention to is how we define our priorities. In other words, is the things we’re prioritizing those which will help us reach our objectives faster, or is it simply the tasks which seem to continually draw our attention to complete or address? Asking yourself these questions I mentioned above will go a long way to making sure the priorities you define are the ones best suited for reaching your goals.

    @John – Thanks John; glad you enjoyed this piece. I definitely believe that making time to ask and review the answers these questions provide will save organizations and individuals time and resources by making sure both are being allocated to the tasks that would best serve the goals you’ve set out for your company or yourself.

    Thanks again Richard and John for adding your thoughts to this discussion.

  11. On June 27th, 2010 at 11:08 AM Mary Jo Asmus said:

    Tanveer, I am getting caught up on my reading after a week of my own “busyness” and a couple of days of travel coming up. I love your questions.

    Although I may date myself in this, but I still find Covey’s time management matrix – with the four quadrants – and his wise advice to focus on the important, but not urgent Quadrant II activities to be relevant and helpful. Maybe even more so today with the preponderance of technical “alerts” and gadgets that catch our attention and distract us away from the important.

  12. On June 28th, 2010 at 1:42 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Mary Jo; I appreciate that.

    You bring up an excellent point of Covey’s that demonstrates a key point that we tend to forget these days – just because a particular task is viewed as being urgent doesn’t mean that it’s also important in the overall scheme of our reaching our target or long-term objectives. By drawing that clear distinction, we stand a better chance of allocating our limited resources to those items that will have an impact on our progress and not simply reacting to those that draw the most attention.

    Thanks, Mary Jo, for contributing your thoughts to this discussion.

  13. On July 15th, 2010 at 11:43 AM scott simmerman said:

    As I look at how things continue to evolve, with ever more isolated leadership, mid-managers stretched to their limits, supervisors expected to motivate people in the midst of continuing drops in real income (in the US, a 4.5% drop last year in "income" per unit of time – decreasing benefits, more hours, less pay, decreased insurance, etc.), HOW do we expect any real increases in teamwork?

    People are NOT engaged in their organizations (only 1 in 5, globally) and leaders aren't leading – only 1 in 10 respondents to a survey agreed that senior leaders in their companies actually treat employees as vital corporate assets.

    Yeah, we can put the "opportunity for improvement" spin on it and look at it as potential organizational capital. On the other hand, it's been going along like this for what seems to be forever…

    And it seems that technology is just making people MORE isolated from each other, not more connected.

    How does anything get done these days? And will anything improve?

    (been consulting and training and all that for over 30 years now)

  14. On July 15th, 2010 at 3:58 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Scott, I think the problems you mention highlight one of two situations – 1) companies and their leaders simply using jargon to appear to be embracing all the recent research regarding what motivates people and helps to create engaged workplaces or 2) companies who are trying out measures to do such and yet seeing no real clear change in the level of engagement in their employees. In regards to the first one, this is clearly a case of companies playing lip-service to this idea instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands wet. In those cases, you can't fault that there's no improvement because there's no genuine effort on the part of those involved to affect real change within their organization.

    In the second scenario, it's hard to fault the leadership since it does appear that they are trying to address the situation. However, we do have to make sure that a sufficient amount of time has been alloted to allow the change to take hold. One can't simply expect employees to suddenly appear to be motivated just because you're trying to create an engaged workplace; there has to be a reasonable amount of time allowed to let employees appreciate this is a serious effort and not the latest pet project from the organization's leadership.

    But if there has been a sufficient amount of time and there still appears to be no tangible improvement, the situation can be addressed by simply talking with your employees to understand how they see things. Sometimes the efforts that we perceive to be significant can be rather unremarkable to our employees. We have to remember that to create a motivated environment takes the involvement of all parties, both those in leadership positions and those in the front lines, if we are going to see the changes we all want to see taking hold in today's workplace.

    Thanks again, Scott, for your comment and questions. I hope my reply helps to shed some light on what I think might be behind those situations.

  15. On July 19th, 2010 at 8:33 AM Deborah Fike said:

    I love question #2 because it implies that you have to remember the human aspect of the project. How do these changes affect the team? And are those changes worth it?

  16. On July 19th, 2010 at 2:00 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Deborah; glad you enjoyed it. Remembering that your team is made up of people, not mindless robots, is incredibly important if leaders are going to tap into the creativity and potential that exists in each member of your team.

    Thanks again, Deborah, for adding your thoughts to this discussion.

  17. On August 2nd, 2010 at 4:37 AM working girl said:

    A beautiful wake up call. It is hard to stay focused on little daily life activities, but they matter much more in the long run and how we integrate them impacts our usefulness to our teams as well. BTW I’ve had many butter-on-both-sides sandwiches and they aren’t too bad. 🙂

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