Are You Attuning Enough as a Leader?

Though we like to pretend otherwise, we are mammals. For our mammal brains, human relationships and social safety are paramount. Studies at Harvard and MIT have shown that our amygdalas are as wired for social safety as they are for physical safety. Healthy social safety at work can support productivity, while the lack of social safety can distract away from the best creative, innovative, and productive contributions. Most leaders don’t invest enough – or at all – in creating social safety.

Companies often call me to do team trainings and leadership coaching when something has gone awry with the team’s productivity and collaboration. Often, there’s conflict involved. In the best of times, team collaboration is not ideal and leaders are looking for an upgrade. To support a team’s growth, I teach about the various components of social and psychological safety. Inevitably, the one concept that surprises people – and simultaneously seems obvious – is one that many people have never even heard of – Attunement.

Attunement means that we hear, see, feel, and understand a person. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with that person. It does mean that we are fully present and tracking what’s happening with them.

Attunement is a profoundly primal need. Think about babies and toddlers; if they know that the adults in their lives are hearing, seeing, feeling, and understanding them, then they know that their needs will be met and they will survive. I’ve been a coach for 18 years and doing personal development work for 30 years; I’ve seen the costs of lack of attunement in countless ways. Most people don’t have wounds of love – they have wounds of attunement. And they carry all that, unconsciously, into the work they do every day.

Consider how you’ve felt when someone gets you; when they are clearly hearing, feeling, seeing, and understanding you.

  • What does attunement feel like for you?
  • What does it feel like when someone important fails to attune to you?

Though each person is unique, imagine that your employees, colleagues, etc. feel similarly to you.

Why use attunement at work?

  • It will help you better hear your stakeholders, team members, leadership/board of directors, or customers
  • It will help you lead more effectively because you can be more precise in your messaging and how you offer resources
  • It helps you do hard things with less conflict and more support (like build a business, innovate change, create powerful impact, etc.)
  • It can turn the volume down on conflict (and sometimes outright help resolve conflict).

In prior jobs leading diverse teams, I hadn’t yet learned this as a concept, and my attunement was inconsistent. Reflecting back, I see clear successes from the relationships with high trust and attunement, and clear pain points and costs in the relationships where I did not invest in attunement. I see it as an opportunity lost, but also as a powerful lesson I will never forget.

Now as an executive coach and facilitator, it’s my #1 job to attune – to listen carefully and understand as thoroughly as possible. If I fail to attune, I can’t connect the right questions, advice, or resources to my clients. And they will resist growth rather than embrace the opportunities to stretch in new ways.

What does attunement look like at work?
In broad strokes, attunement doesn’t have to be perfect at work… it just has to be enough. What is enough? That depends on several factors:

  1. The kind of work you do
  2. The intimacy of the relationship; i.e., direct report (high intimacy), vs a colleague in another department you see once a quarter (lower intimacy)
  3. The inherent power dynamics of the relationships and how much weight they put on your opinion
  4. Your goal or intention.

How do I use attunement more?
You’ll need to get creative and explore the possibilities for how attunement applies to your unique role, workplace, culture, business, industry, etc. But here are some basic ideas to get you started:

  • Listen more carefully and intentionally; then reflect back what you are hearing.
  • Challenge yourself to put yourself in other people’s shoes.
  • Make regular times to touch base with co-workers in a meaningful way.
  • Ask open-ended questions that invite reflection and sharing.
  • Understand what motivates your colleagues, leaders, and direct reports.
  • Signal that you care about the other person(s) and what they have to say.

When you have a healthy working relationship with someone or a group of people, you usually don’t need to spend as much time and effort on attunement, because the foundation of social safety is already there. In that case, I still recommend “maintenance attunement,” which could be as simple as going out for lunch or having a Zoom coffee date to create space for an honest conversation.

When you are building newer relationships or want to upgrade relationships, then intentional and regular practices of attunement can be extremely helpful.

It Has to be Real.
Whatever you choose to do, it needs to be sincere and authentic. As mammals, we read the many facial and body language cues that alert us to sincerity or deception. So ask yourself, what’s the most authentic, aligned way for me to attune to my colleagues, team, customers, etc.?

Try An Experiment
I encourage you to explore attunement practices as an experiment over the next month. What do you discover? When does it work well and create new pathways? When does it not work and a different tool is needed?

If you need more 1:1 guidance or brainstorming about attunement or any other tools of leading and relating, please reach out to schedule a session. I look forward to exploring with you.

New to my work? Schedule a free introductory 30-min session with me.
Need an upgrade to your team dynamics? Meet with me to discuss group coaching or team trainings.

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