Elevating Presence in Leader-Led Conversations

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I sat across from him on a Wednesday morning, knowing we had much to discuss and accomplish in our 1.5-hour meeting that was scheduled for 10:00a.m. 

I quickly settled into the light green patterned swivel chair across from his polyurethane stained work desk as he fumbled to organize the scattered papers fanned across his space. 

At the same time, I watched as his tense and elevated right shoulder support the small cellular device that was perched awkwardly on it – he was finishing up a work call as I waited for our meeting to start. The time was now 10:07a.m.

I sat there in his florescent lit office, patient and calm. I reviewed the prepared notes I had in front of me while being aware of my breathing pace – a steady four-count breath in and a four-count breath out. I waited another five minutes before he turned his disjointed attention toward me, finally looking into my eyes and with a big sigh said, “OK! Sorry, it’s been a crazy morning for me. Let’s begin.”

This man was my manager, Ron. The meeting was (technically speaking) my “bi-weekly scheduled 1:1,” but realistically, we would meet monthly for a very brief check-in. Often times, Ron would cancel our 1:1 meetings/conversations because of his ‘busy schedule and heavy managerial work load’.  

 I kicked off the meeting, highlighting some of the things I prepared for our agenda and watched him lean far back in his low, black swivel chair. His fingertips came together in front of him in a reflective way that seemed to help him to focus on my words. He looked contemplative yet a bit distracted. 

As I continued highlighting the items I intended to discuss with him, I watched his gaze shift from my face to his computer screen. It was clear that an e-mail had just come into his inbox and caught his full attention. 

I paused for a moment, hoping it would trigger him to refocus on our conversation, but instead, he leaned forward quickly in his chair and jiggled his computer mouse rather aggressively. He clicked into that e-mail while he raised his left pointer finger up in the air, motioning me to “hold on” (I had already paused). He followed with, “One moment, Ashley. I have to reply to this e-mail.”

He seemed agitated, annoyed and began typing fast and hard. His breathing became stiff and arrhythmic - a sinister scowl glazed over his face. Once he had finished sending off that e-mail, he looked back at me and stated, “Ugh, sorry – upper management can be such a pain in the ass! I had to take care of that. Go ahead.”

This pattern of being in and out of presence with me continued on throughout our entire 1.5-hour meeting. As unfortunate as it was, this was generally the tone and cadence of most of my 1:1’s with Ron and eerily familiar of other managers I had worked with earlier in my career.

When I moved into the consulting world, I observed similar 1:1 experiences between leaders and their employees – they were a lot more common than I expected. What seemed to be missing with my old manager, Ron, and some of the other leaders I have consulted with in the past was a lack of genuine presence, respect, connection and preparation with their employees. 

As I sat in those consulting meetings, I could feel the employee’s unease, tension and annoyance rise as they responded directly to their leader’s lack of presence.

When these interactions happen, there tends to be an underpinning feeling of not being fully seen, heard or valued as an employee. This observation brought me back to my dreaded interactions with my boss Ron and it broke my heart that others were experiencing similar interactions. This became a main focus in my consulting mission – to help leaders become more mindful in their leadership style/approach with their employees and why it mattered.

I believe there is nothing more important than engaging with people in a respectful way - giving them your full attention and presence when you’re with them.  Being present means having the desire and self-discipline to shed all the external and internal distractions (phone, email and all the possible chaotic mental/energetic energy that busies our minds) to show up fully with another person with the sole intention to truly listen and be of service if applicable. 

Being present as a leader at work means setting aside any personal negative emotions or feelings with the intention of making the time about the employee and their needs. It means being dedicated to keeping your commitment to 1:1 meetings and holding a pristine space for that person to share what might be on their mind. It means temporarily locking the computer, shutting the door and sending the phone to VM. It means setting up an environment (virtual or face-to-face) to be reflective of the time you intend to spend with each employee – quality and focused time. It means recognizing that giving your undivided attention (your presence), is the way to show people you care about them, that you’re there for them and that they matter to you. 

Presence is an attribute to respect and we all strive to engage in respectful relationships with others in our lives. Work is no different. When there is a lack of presence or respect within a leader’s behavior with their employees, the interactions can become less authentic, meaningful, productive, truthful and connective. Distrust can leak into the fabric of that relationship when a leader is showing up with anything less than their 100% undivided attention. This dynamic over time creates a fracture in the bond of the employee and leader relationship, which can lead to a lack of employee engagement, productivity and performance. 

When leaders make the choice to bring more presence into their interactions with employees, they demonstrate a highly astute sense of self-awareness, a keen knowing of what people truly want and need in leader to employee work interactions.  When leaders bring more presence into their interactions with their employees they create a foundation for authentic connection and trust, while securing a solid platform for success to thrive.  This choice defines a Mindful and Enlightened Leader.   

Ashley Boyd