When You Pretend to be Present


We all know what being present means: not touching our cell phone, turning completely away from the computer, looking the person who is speaking in the eye. Yet so many leaders only pretend to be present and don't realize the toll its taking on the culture of their teams and the perception others have of them.

Presence is a critical leadership skill that isn't being addressed.

So many leaders wear their "multitasking" superhero shirt and pretend to pay attention. They show up on time to meetings, fake listening by nodding and asking questions at the right moments, and even take a few notes. They do it in meetings and they do it with their employees (and then their employees emulate that same behavior). And the outcome is detrimental over time - when encountering leaders who pretend to be present, employees do not feel listened to, respected, or valued.

In The Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox Cabane defines presence as one of three components to being trusted and liked. "Presence determines whether you're seen as a follower or a leader, whether your ideas get adopted, and how effectively your projects are implemented." Even more, "Being present - paying attention to what's going on rather than being caught up in your own thoughts - can yield immense rewards for leaders."

In a coaching session this week I listened to a Gary describe the impact of not bringing his laptop to meetings. He recently made the change because in a 360 feedback survey his direct reports felt like when they talked to him he really wasn't listening, and he thought that leaving his laptop at his desk would make an impact.

It worked.

Over four weeks, Gary noticed quite a few improvements in the culture of his team. The conversations in his 1:1 meetings were richer. Without asking them to, his direct reports actually stopped bringing their laptops to meetings, which made meetings more efficient (and many were ending early because of it). He was being more intentional on creating a to do list because of the notes he was taking while away from his laptop.

Most importantly - there was not a business crisis and no one lost their mind because Gary was away from his computer for a one hour meeting! This was such a valuable lesson because it was the reason he was glued to his laptop - to answer every email and address every problem the second it came in, out of fear that he would be blamed for something or someone would get angry.

All along, Gary had been pretending to be present, and his team felt it. He was caught up in his own thoughts, often zoning out while they talked (What's your zoned out look? The bobble-head nod, glazed over eyes, no eye contact at all?) or typing away on his laptop.

And all along, the culture of the team was disintegrating. Gary wasn't really trusted or respected . The team felt like they were a burden that got in the way of Gary doing his job. Gary felt frustrated and stressed most of the time.

Presence can't be faked. When we're not paying full attention, people see it. And when we are paying full attention, people feel it. Changing how present you are with your team can have a huge impact on team culture and improve engagement, which will increase morale and work output. And it's probably easier than you think. Start by leaving your laptop at your desk and take note of what happens.

The Charisma Myth changed the way I interact with others. I recommend it to a majority of leaders I coach. If you're looking for tips on how to be present or increase your overall charisma, you won't be disappointed.