When Leaders Ignore Their Intuition: Attentional Debt
Updated: Feb 22
The Problem: Every CEO knows the feeling of pushing a tough problem to the back burner. These problems may start off as a small shortcoming you actively ignore, simply because you don't immediately know how to fix it and don't want to face it. Maybe it is an inexperienced developer team. Maybe it is unfair compensation practice. Or low performance standards - or even a tough conversation (surprisingly common!). Either way, you (i) thought about the problem, (2) realized you probably needed a solution, and (3) then parked it on the back burner of your mind. Other than perhaps writing it down, you took no action. This is what happens when leaders ignore their Spidey Sense, or business intuition, out of fear.
This is Attentional Debt - the place you park problems you don’t know how to solve yet, without fixing them. If you want a more concrete definition, I would define Attentional Debt as any issue you have thought about more than 3x in one month without action. This is extremely dangerous for a CEO to indulge in, especially in high risk, active change, or VUCA environments (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity). The real issue here is not that you don’t know the answer, it’s that you refuse to take action on something that was gripping enough to get your attention. Once you accumulate enough Attentional Debt, you trigger all sorts of organization problems, including the mental inflammation that makes startups feel like chaotic disasters. You also risk starting a Shadow Culture, which is when the company works behind the leader’s back to solve problems the leader won’t address. The good news is that *everyone* faces Attentional Debt, and so even a *semi-decent* process of addressing it will give you a competitive advantage. Getting an early start on this can de-risk your company significantly. In other words, Attentional Debt is when you do a risk analysis *emotionally* and choose to avoid it with inaction, instead of vetting the risk *objectively* and getting outside consensus on what you should do. The more the issue presents itself and the more you blow it off, the more your emotional risk analysis should be examined for bias.
Why This Happens: A cousin of analysis paralysis, Attentional Debt is blowing off of a problem because it is simply too psychologically painful to face. However, it will never feel like this in the moment. In the moment, Attentional Debt will simply occur as an annoying, intrusive thought. In fact, exactly because it shows up as an “intrusive thought” is what makes it so easy to dismiss and park into Attentional Debt. After all, it’s just a nuisance, a distraction, right? This at least, is how you will typically categorize the fear that this uncertain situation is causing you. The more you do this, especially under stress, the greater the risk of Attentional Debt. In the “Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn” model, Attentional Debt is a Freeze reaction. This happens for many reasons, including when the CEO or decision maker is: (1) ashamed because they don’t know how to solve the problem at hand (more on that here); (2) emotionally overwhelmed because they don’t have the resources at hand needed to solve it; (3) terrified of the consequences of the problem, or (4) generally in too much chaos or stress to handle even one more problem.
Importantly, unlike management debt, technical debt, or analysis paralysis which can be very public, Attentional Debt is primarily a private experience - one that leaders don’t share with others, because even sharing the issue seems too painful or difficult. A core psychological lynchpin of Attentional Debt is that the leader-in-debt cannot imagine that anyone else could make progress on the problem either. Often the executive will reason that, with some time to think about it, they will eventually figure out what to say or do. Sometimes, the Attentional Debt is even quieter - it shows up as a quiet whisper, “Psst! Something. Is. Wrong!!!” That quiet voice? You ignore it at your own peril. And if you see Attentional Debt, you may notice that months pass by without the problem getting addressed. This is a sure sign of Attentional Debt. Attentional Debt always starts as a problem asking for attention, but it never gets the attention it deserves - until it suddenly becomes a crisis that cannot be ignored.
The Solution: There is a two-part solution. The simple part is to hand off any Attentional Debt to someone else so they can brainstorm a few basic solutions. Often, one of the best people to hand this kind of project off to is someone more junior than you who would be *thrilled* to brainstorm on something like this. In my experience, this is a fantastic Win-Win-Win (more on that forthcoming) since your headache becomes someone’s most exciting project of the year. The hard part, however, is finding the Attentional Debt in the first place. That’s outlined below.
Actual Steps to Find Attentional Debt: Since this is a “being honest with yourself” exercise, you get exactly out of it as much as you put into it.
Set aside 10 minutes and, stream of consciousness, note every single troubling business thought that’s been lingering in the back of your head, asking for your attention and which you have been ignoring. This is the naming process Susan David mentions in her book Emotional Agility and is a hugely useful step for issues you have not yet put into words. This will feel like an emotional puke out and will often be an unburdening process.
Circle the top 2 that have occurred to you the most or are the most emotional for you.
Circle the top 2 issue, which if you don’t resolve in the next 3-4 months, will cause serious problems for your business (they may be the same issues as above).
Choose up to 2 more that have been mentioned to you repeatedly or which seems to be putting *other* people into serious distress due to your inaction (they may be the same issues as above).
These (up to 6) items are the ones most at risk for Attentional Debt. You should hand these off to someone else to propose solutions to you. These people can be internal or external to your company.
Set a follow up in 1-2 weeks to hear their thoughts. At that point, you are ready to take these items out of Attentional Debt and create change (hints on how here).
If you are not willing to hand these off, at least put a risk assessment team together to sit down with you and help you measure the risk / opportunity trade off of ignoring these issues further. You want to make this process as objective as you can.
Why This Works: The main issue with Attentional Debt is psychological avoidance. This is why the process of “list making” is an essential first step. Putting psychological discomfort into words is itself relaxing, as noted by Susan David. Handing off the problem to someone else to provide solutions - no matter how preliminary their solutions are - further creates psychological distance, a process called dissociation that hypnotherapists use in imagination exercises to help clients process trauma. Additionally, getting the topic off your mental back burner for even a week reduces your mental inflammation, which is incredibly relieving. Finally, when someone comes back to you in a week to present their solutions, not only will you have some potential avenues to pursue, but you will feel like a “boss of the problem” instead of a victim of the problem and will be in a psychological command position - one principle behind overcoming learned helplessness and depression. Finally, “This Problem is So Big I Can’t Think About It” crisis of Attentional Debt will not be nearly as painful for someone else to think about, because they reflect your psychological sensitivity, not theirs.
Where You May Get Stuck: Well, if you are suffering from Attention Debt, you may try to put this exercise itself on the back burner! That reminds me of an episode when I was at home for several days, extremely ill. My friend suggested I go to the hospital. I remember distinctly telling him, with no irony in my voice, “I am too sick to get to the hospital.” To which he simply replied, “Dude. Think about what you just said and get yourself to a hospital, ASAP.” I did and things turned out fine. Take the time to dump out the back burners of your brain and get other people working on them!