How to turn interruptions into opportunities

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Leadership guru and Avon Products chairman Douglas R. Conant posted a tip on a recent Harvard Business Review blog that everyone trying to do business in today’s plugged-in, always-on lifestyle can use: How to make interruptions work for you, not against you.

“There are relentless demands from meetings, emails, text messages, questions to answer, problems to solve, fires to put out,” Conant writes. “It can begin to feel like there is never any time to get ‘real work’ done.”   

But, he says, these interruptions are the work — and when you look at it from this perspective, it can change your whole attitude. 

“Every single interaction is rife with the potential to become the high point or the low point in someone’s day,” Conant writes. “Every ‘interruption’ offers an opportunity to lead impactfully, to set expectations, bring clarity to an issue, or infuse a problem with energy and insight.” 

To reframe interruptions in an empowering way, he calls them “touchpoints,” adding that when viewed this way, we can begin to lead more meaningfully minute by minute. The key to this reframing is to view the interruption as being “spring-loaded with possibilities” and identify the key variables in each exchange: issue, people and leader. By looking for the issue, people and leader involved, you can clarify important structural needs within your organization. 

First, figure out whether the issue itself is important to the overall health of your business. 

“This could be how to address an employee complaint, replace a key team member, or how to make a project come to fruition in the face of budget cuts. In each interaction it is necessary to assess if the issue is ‘yours,’ ‘theirs’ or ‘ours,’” he writes. 

Second, remember that whatever you say or do in these touchpoints can be quickly transmitted exponentially throughout the people involved — potentially becoming part of your company’s culture, he notes.

“Remember, organizations are living systems in which people are connecting all the time: individuals who report to you directly, colleagues, and anyone with whom you have a straight or dotted reporting line. Consider that every single person with whom you interact is embedded in complex webs of relationships. It is crucial to think about all of the people who will be affected by your words and actions, even those who are not present in a particular interaction.”

Finally, ask yourself: Who is the leader in the interaction? This person should bring clarity and focus to the issue at hand. Sometimes that’s you or someone else high up the chain of command. But anyone can lead if they listen intently, help frame the issue and spread infectious, positive energy throughout the organization, Conant adds.

“Using this structure to reflect on the variables in each touchpoint, you can begin to unlock the full potential of each interaction,” he writes. “Treat every interruption as a golden opportunity to contribute meaningfully. You’ll become more fully present in your leadership. Each moment will become a chance to inspire a sense of possibilities and stimulate the desire for betterment throughout the entire organization.”


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