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One of my favorite images to help understand the value of observation comes from Ronald Heifetz’s Leadership on the Line. Heifetz talks about the importance of “going to the balcony,” leaving the fray of a real-time situation to take the stairs up to an imaginary, bird’s eye view of what is going on. Throughout each day, you can telescope up to the macro view and back down to the micro as often as you need to gain perspective; with this regular practice, you will find you have increased discretion and self-awareness about your response to various situations. 

Self-awareness has multiple dimensions:  

  • what you can intellectually understand with your brain, 
  • what your body (gut and intuition) tells you, and
  • what your heart longs for


You may be a natural observer; if not, it is a skill you can develop. Building awareness through observation is a combination of analytical/logical thinking, heart/spirit recognition, and body/gut knowing. You can foster an innate sense of the situations, work environments, colleagues, mission statements, and job responsibilities that bring out your best. It can enable you to notice what the people on your team need, how best to leverage their strengths, and build their engagement in the work to achieve stellar outcomes for the organization. Doing this will also help you foster which attributes tend to put you at a disadvantage, drain your energy, and keep you from bringing your best self to work. 

When you are known for your technical abilities, it can be easy to deprioritize mastering the fundamentals of observation in communication with others. Sandra’s experience illustrates the risks of the lack of observation in a leadership role. She was broadsided by the feedback she received as part of her 360 review. On learning that a cross-functional set of her peers felt she was tone-deaf in her trust-building ability, she felt demoralized. She didn’t know what to make from the feedback and struggled to move forward. 

What in essence her colleagues were saying was that she was not listening to the energy behind their words. As they collaborated on a high-visibility, high-priority project for the company, Sandra came to status meetings intent on her agenda and focused on her own objectives to keep her team’s work moving forward toward their deadlines. As she endeavored to balance the project’s tendency for scope creep within a firm budget and timeline, she had developed tunnel vision in how she interacted with her business counterparts.

Her belief system to not show any weakness, even when she was at fault for having missed a detail, was having the opposite effect of her intent. Rather than being seen as effective, her lack of acknowledgment of mistakes and her stakeholders’ concerns, stated through their body language and veiled comments, left her without an advocate when it came time to review her job performance. 

What her partners needed was for her to notice their nonverbal cues, and the looks on their faces when they didn’t agree with her or felt steamrolled, skeptical, or not heard. Rather than paying attention to the intention behind their words, she focused on her needs. When they raised issues, rather than acknowledge them she was defensive, making excuses or making it sound like she was on top of things that she wasn’t. The result? They felt a lack of collaboration, a sense of distrust, and a misalignment between the groups.

Ironically, by focusing on being efficient she was becoming less so, ignoring the intangibles of trust-building through observation and communication. With this feedback in hand, Sandra started to pay attention in a new way, observing what was being said and not said and also noticing the energy and body language her colleagues and teammates displayed in various meetings. By speaking to those cues, she proceeded to build productive partnerships that helped drive success for their joint projects, and by extension, their organization’s growth.

By fostering the ability to notice and respond to what others want and need, you can design mutually beneficial outcomes in collaborative work situations, resulting in productive working relationships, mutual respect, and leadership success.

This is an excerpt from Merideth’s forthcoming book: Your Finest Work: Career Fulfillment in A Complicated World


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