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Leadership Distraction: An Under-Used Tool for a Transparent World

Dave Ulrich /

No one can hide from the transparency in today’s world where personal and organizational actions inevitably gain public scrutiny. Leaders who learn to appropriately distract may find a path through these transparency landmines.

What would you think if you were asked to spend thousands of dollars to visit a location, and on this trip you had to walk six to seven miles a day in hot and humid weather, stand in lines for fifteen to 45 minutes at a time, eat unhealthy food at premium prices, and be hemmed in with wall-to-wall people? We call this Disneyland and it is “the happiest place on earth.” Why do over 20 million people continue to visit Disney theme parks each year? 

The answer, in part, is because their rides distract visitors from the otherwise daunting visit. The rides themselves are almost always much shorter than the lines to get into them (Dumbo, Flying Elephant lasts 1 minute 30 seconds, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad lasts 3 minutes 25 seconds, It’s A Small World is 10 minutes 30 seconds, Space Mountain is 2 minutes 30 seconds, and Jungle Cruise lasts 9 minutes 5 seconds). While one of my friends who does an annual pilgrimage to Disneyland with his now-adult children says that the long lines allow him to spend personal time with his kids and is a positive part of the Disney experience, most would disagree and seek to distract themselves from the lines with the excitement of the ride to come.

Distractions can enable positive outcomes. Magicians make wild movements with one hand and use the other to perform their magic. Highway signs sometimes distract drivers from the sleep-inducing boredom of driving. Half-time acts at sporting events distract fans from the lull in the event. 

One of the classic and most impactful uses of leadership distractions happened on June 5, 1947, when Secretary of State George Marshall introduced the Marshall Plan by giving a rather innocuous address to the graduating class of Harvard University. Standing on the steps of Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, he offered American aid to promote European recovery and reconstruction. The speech described the dysfunction of the European economy and presented a rationale for U.S. aid.

The administration felt that the plan would likely be unpopular among many Americans, and the speech was mainly directed at a European audience. So in an attempt to keep the speech out of American papers, journalists were not contacted, and on the same day, President Truman called a press conference to take away headlines. In contrast, Dean Acheson, the Under Secretary of State, was dispatched to contact the European media, especially the British media, and the speech was read in its entirety on the BBC

This political leadership distraction playbook continues today when a controversial political appointment looms and the President holds a rare press conference to take attention away from the contentious debate. 

Leadership often requires making tough choices such as changing strategic direction, responding to difficult customers, closing plants or discontinuing products, changing public opinion, addressing workplace scandal, letting people go, promoting someone instead of another person, meeting financial expectations, and so forth. At times, leaders may hope that these difficult decisions might just go away (hint: they don’t!). At other times, leaders may want to be totally transparent to “run into” the difficult choices, often resulting in endless, and at times acrimonious, debates. At still other times, leaders can be thoughtfully transparent by intentionally managing distraction. 

Leadership distractions can be negative when they are feints primarily used to postpone making or discussing difficult issues. Postponing tough decisions generally only creates a future spring-loaded response often preceding a surge of activity.

But let me suggest ways to temper transparency through appropriate uses of distraction:

Manage attention.

A leader described managing attention by suggesting that when a pink elephant is in the room (a very visible and public issue), one might surround that elephant with other issues so that it does not stand out quite as much. A leadership team decided they had to close a plant, which would disrupt many lives. To help employees focus less on losing their jobs and more on moving forward, the entire corporate leadership team visited the plant for three days. They shared with all employees why the plant was closing on the evening of day one, then met one-on-one with any employee who wished to throughout day two so that they could focus employees less on the loss and more on their transition and the future personal implications. On day three, the leaders came together again to thank employees for their service and offer them a glimpse of a hopeful future. The process of involving others engaged people in moving forward rather than leaving them lamenting the choices.

Manage timing. 

A rather thoughtless leader announced layoffs two weeks before Christmas, which only magnified the message. Good leaders consider the timing of announcements, including in terms of overall calendars, time of the week, and time of the day. In today’s world, news cycles move quickly, and managing messages within those news cycles may moderate the message. Share good news at times to maximize attention and bad news at times to minimize attention. 

Manage empathy. 

Personal empathy may also provide the right distraction from the emotional toil of tough choices. A leader choosing to end a product line shared her personal experiences with previous false starts throughout her career. She talked about how her failures were foundational for her success. She empathized with the team’s noble efforts that did not work out by sharing her personal experiences. 

Manage audience.

Selecting the audience for a message becomes important when utilizing distraction. As a poor example, a leader announced a difficult policy from his office, not being willing to engage with those who would be negatively affected by it. Another company announced layoffs through social media (email, twitter, etc.). When employees heard these policies, they were doubly annoyed, first by the policy and also by the somewhat cowardly way it was presented. Good leaders run into the difficult issues and address the right audiences directly: answer questions, have a debate, and encourage dialogue. When others feel they have been heard, they are more likely to acquiesce even if they don’t agree. 

Manage distraction tools. 

On one of my books, someone posted a negative Amazon review (how dare they!!). I sought out some friends who would post subsequent and more positive, and yet still honest, reviews so that the negative review was not the first item seen. Leaders can use social media tools through posts, blogs, comments, and other crowd sourcing ideas to thwart more negative comments and focus on the positive. 

If distraction is used to hide from or ignore tough decisions, it fails. But used judiciously, leaders who thoughtfully manage distractions can cope with the increased scrutiny and transparency of today’s work world to help balance the negative challenges with the potential positive opportunities.