Why Leaders Should Embrace Interruptions


Does this sound familiar? It’s about 3 in the afternoon. You’ve been answering emails and phone calls and addressing many unforeseen issues all day. You’ve finally stolen a few moments to yourself to hunker down and get some real, substantive work done. And then – somebody knocks on your door. It’s a colleague with a question. A pressing one. You feel a passing tinge of irritation. This was your first moment to yourself all day! But do you give in to feeling annoyed or do you decide to take a moment to be fully present for your team member right now?

The Choice.

It’s a choice. The kind you have to make all day, every single day. The disruptive “knock on the door” presents itself relentlessly throughout the work week in the form of meetings, emails, text messages, questions to answer, problems to solve, fires to put out. It seems the information age has morphed into the interruption age. So how do you respond?

It’s a matter of perspective. What if you were to change your view of these seeming disruptions in an empowering way – a way that cast these pesky interruptions in a positive light, loaded with possibilities? At ConantLeadership, we believe that these thousands of little interruptions don’t have to keep you from the work; often, they are the work of leadership. More now than ever. And as tempting as it may be to lock the door, hold your calls, or skip the meeting — you can’t opt out of this crucial part of your job.

Interruptions don’t have to keep you from the work; often, they are the work.

Yes, you do have to prioritize, and no leader is physically able to give equal attention to every issue or disruption that arises.  But when you’ve got the proper tools to effectively manage the daily litany of “interruptions”, you won’t want to avoid as many of them. And you’ll be able to more expertly choose which ones to give your more careful attention. You might even look forward to embracing these moments, leaning-in to that “knock on the door” knowing that it represents your opportunity to make an increasingly larger difference in the lives of the people with whom you live and work.

The Opportunity.

It helps to think about this: each interaction, or TouchPoint, is rife with the potential to become the high point or the low point in someone’s workday. With a few careful words you might be able to positively alter the trajectory of somebody’s day – or week, or even month! That’s a big responsibility. But it’s also an honor. You should bring the appropriate care whenever possible.

Similarly, every interaction you encounter — and choose to thoughtfully engage with — offers the chance to lead impactfully, to set high expectations, infuse an issue with clarity, or imbue a problem with energy and insight. Each is a way to advance the agenda of the organization.

It’s up to you as the leader to do your best to make sure others do their best.

What’s more, your behavior in the moment – if handled deftly — might inspire in others a more tangible, personal commitment to their work. Each person you touch with your words is a part of the overall ecosystem of the workplace. If you are not carefully responding to people when it matters most, it can affect the entire environment negatively. But when you honor people, and skillfully manage the planned and unplanned interactions you encounter, you can invigorate the entire organization one TouchPoint at a time. Importantly, the skill you bring to your daily interactions (choosing  to be responsibly present and available just a little more often than you were before) could be the difference between an organization chugging along with complacence or thriving with vigor. It’s up to you as the leader to do your best to make sure others do their best. Often, that means not shying away from “interruptions.”

And with every unplanned TouchPoint around an important issue, you get important practice that helps you to be better at an essential part of your job — human interaction. Clearly, if you choose with purpose to see these moments not as distractions from your work, but as the work, then you can begin to lead more competently in each and every moment.

The Anatomy of a TouchPoint.

So how do you effectively filter these countless opportunities to connect with people  and decide which moments to embrace? (Because, while you probably should be engaging with interruptions more often than you are now, it is unrealistic to expect you to engage with every single one. Sometimes, what is needed is to give your attention to something later, or connect somebody with another person who can help, or if something is very trivial, to politely move on).

To help decide what is important, it is helpful to diagram the key factors in each interaction. This provides a more practical way to approach these moments, helps guides your behavior, and empowers leaders to know when they can apply their expertise in a meaningful and productive way. Then, you can more quickly and effectively “show up” for people no matter the moment, and you can move on to the next thing with speed and agility.

Each Touchpoint is comprised of three factors: The IssueThe Other People, and The Leader.

The Issue
The issue in a TouchPoint is something critical, anything that affects individuals, teams, units, or the entire organization. It could be how to address a customer complaint, find resources in the wake of budget cuts, replacing a key team member, or even building a relationship. With each issue there’s a chance to make a positive and enduring connection. So if you can identify the issue – and you determine that it’s important, you should choose to embrace the interaction.

The Other People
This factor in a TouchPoint includes all the stakeholders involved in the issue, even those who are not present in the current interaction. They may have diverse norms and values but the onus of being hyper-sensitive and tuned-in is on you. Be alert to the fact that behavior that works remarkably well with one person may turn another off completely. It’s important to be able to adapt in each unique circumstance.

The Leader
The leader in a TouchPoint is the one who reacts and interacts smartly and nimbly, adding a little “magic” to the moment. Leading in an interaction is not dictated by title or position but by behavior. You lead by listening carefully, framing the issue, adding a sense of urgency, and inspiring confidence about next steps. Conscientiously guide and develop others. Aim to address the most pressing issue in way that helps now but also arms stakeholders with the skills to react next time.

Being mindful of the three variables in each TouchPoint helps you to manage the complexity that is inherent in most interactions (especially those that are surprising or off-the-cuff) and to choose how to contribute in the most effective way – while honoring all three components. With a more structured approach, you can practice your in-the-moment leadership skills with intention.

So don’t dismiss all interruptions as barriers to work; when you begin to view many of these moments as an important part of the real work you open yourself to a more fulfilling expression of your leadership. Even a single moment can change the way people think about themselves, their leaders, and their future. So try to react skillfully, and to do better, with every “knock on the door.”

For a deeper understanding of how to create powerful leadership connections in the smallest of moments, explore Doug Conant & Mette Norgaard’s New York Times Bestselling book, TouchPoints.

(Photo: By WOCInTech Chat via Flickr Creative Commons under this license).

career, Corporate Governance, entrepreneurship, Interaction, leadership, leading people, Leading teams, TouchPoints,
  • Khwaja Shaik

    Thanks for sharing your thought leadership Doug. I enjoyed it so much.

    I like the concept of “inside out process” in treating each person differently based on the situation. The more EQ I have, the better I would be able to master the “inside out” process. As Mahatma Gandhi’s quote says – “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

    Few of the tools I use are:

    1. Apply the sense of urgency” with the end in mind ( Stephen Covey’s habit) and addressing the core issue with the ” win win” attitude.

    2. If email doesn’t work, sometimes I pick up the phone and address it 1×1.

    3. In the case of team conversation, I try to become an “excellent noticer” so that I can feel the mood of the room in order to get my point across.

    4. I am still developing “staying optimist” during the time of crisis.

    Khwaja Shaik

  • Khwaja Shaik

    Thanks for sharing your thought leadership Doug. I enjoyed it so much.

    I like the concept of “inside out process” in treating each person differently based on the situation. The more EQ I have, the better I would be able to master the “inside out” process. As Mahatma Gandhi’s quote says – “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

    Few of the tools I use are:

    1. Apply the sense of urgency” with the end in mind ( Stephen Covey’s habit) and addressing the core issue with the ” win win” attitude.

    2. If email doesn’t work, sometimes I pick up the phone and address it 1×1.

    3. In the case of team conversation, I try to become an “excellent noticer” so that I can feel the mood of the room in order to get my point across.

    4. I am still developing “staying optimist” during the time of crisis.

    Khwaja Shaik

  • DouglasConant

    Hi Khwaja,
    It’s always nice to hear your insights — thank you for sharing. It’s clear you are a thoughtful and committed student of leadership, dedicated to honing your craft. I find this commitment to learning and improving is a characteristic all great leaders share! Keep up the good work.

  • DouglasConant

    Hi Khwaja,
    It’s always nice to hear your insights — thank you for sharing. It’s clear you are a thoughtful and committed student of leadership, dedicated to honing your craft. I find this commitment to learning and improving is a characteristic all great leaders share! Keep up the good work.