Observation: The Most Underappreciated Leadership Skill

July 2021 | By ALULA

As we push through the second half of 2021, many unknowns remain from a tumultuous 2020. We’re in uncharted territory, so it’s important to consider what leadership skills will be critical as teams sail this new course.

What leadership element might be overlooked? What’s the common factor between a floor supervisor of a grocery store, a charge nurse in a COVID unit, and a senior leader of a Fortune 10 company? What one tool do they all have the opportunity to use, but might forget or misunderstand?

If you haven’t guessed by the title of this article, that key component is Observation.

colleagues-discussing-in-meeting-room-during-video-conference-picture-id1211197186If we look at observation’s dictionary definition, “the action or process of observing something/someone carefully in order to gain information,” two points stand out. The “action” of observing someone and the fact that we do so in order to “gain information.”

Perhaps most surprising is that observation is an action. It’s not something that happens passively, as you go about your day. No, real observation requires intention. It must be, at least in some sense, planned for and executed as any other critical task would be. For leaders, it should be as crucial as data management or process improvement.

In our experience working with leaders, we know that open-minded individuals craving continuous learning are the ones to discover how crucial observation is. Some leaders unfortunately never discover its utility, but without it, it’s nearly impossible to know any of the following:

  • If expectations are clear
  • Whether barriers exist and where to find them
  • Who’s going above and beyond what’s expected
  • Who is working to meet customer needs behind-the-scenes
  • Whether targets are being reached in the right way with the right behaviors
  • When and how to deliver specific and actionable feedback, and whether it was effective
  • If coaching impacted performance as intended

When you factor in the stresses of the pandemic—changing market conditions, remote work or return to office, new employees, and new skills—this seemingly obvious tool becomes all the more critical. Observing performance is a behavior that has to be learned and—if practiced—can produce win after win for leaders, direct reports, stakeholders, and ultimately the bottom line.

Good observation strategies don’t involve micromanaging or watching over employees’ shoulders. Here’s a proven observation strategy we encourage leaders to follow that avoids the feeling of intense scrutiny:

  • Go to where work gets done/ask the right questions to get close to the work. It’s hard to know if desired behaviors are occurring if you aren’t on the frontlines (physically, or in spirit).
  • Prioritize time to check on progress. Leaders have to plan intentionally for observation time.
  • Keep “pinpointing” in mind. Leaders can ensure specific, business-critical actions are happening by observing if people are working on the right things in the right way. Pinpointing the most critical behaviors is where many leaders struggle, and that can result in miscommunication. Learn to pinpoint and your teams will better understand what you expect and if they are achieving that.

About Pinpointing

Pinpointing is a method for leaders to identify specific business-critical behaviors—precisely and objectively—to achieve new performance.

 •  Pinpointing takes time and rigor as leaders target new results and identify the teams or individuals whose actions most influence desired results.
•   Leaders must first identify employees who have the greatest impact on the target result. Once performers are identified, the next focus should be on specific behaviors that will drive targeted results, pinpointing those that are most critical to achieving said results.

By pinpointing the most critical employees and behaviors, an even stronger connection is made between employees’ behaviors and results.

  • Ask the right questions to the right people in the right way. Knowing which questions to ask and to whom is essential. Stakeholders hold a wealth of information: Knowing who they are and what they need is imperative.
  • Observe teams in action with curiosity and an open mindset.
  •  Actively listen to the concerns and barriers of both teams and stakeholders to truly understand their points of view.

Observing has a slew of beneficial side-effects: It makes feedback conversations easier and more effective, performance reviews become a piece of cake, morale improves, and your people will be willing to go that extra mile more often.

Roll up your sleeves and put in the time; the rewards will follow. If you can conquer observation in these uncertain times, just think of what you can do in the years to come. Opening your eyes and “looking to understand” will change what you see. What are you observing today?

Other Leadership posts you may want to read:

Twelve Leadership Practices to Help Others Excel
The Power of Positive Gossip: Building a Culture Defined by Successes
Stop Feeling Like a Pinball: Four Foundations of Effective Performance Coaching That Take Just a Few Minutes a Day


This Post is Coauthored by: Pam Roberts and Debbie Kramer

Pam Roberts is a seasoned coach and consultant with dynamic experience in the manufacturing, telecommunications, retail, and healthcare industries. An expert in Applied Behavioral Science, she helps organizations achieve accelerated, sustainable results, bringing out the best in people through the alignment of systems, processes, and performer levels. Her efforts have seen multiple Fortune-ranked companies improve their metrics while opening up new avenues of business. Pam’s additional areas of expertise include performance management, process improvement, leadership development, and change management.

Debbie Kramer is a veteran C-suite leader, consultant, and speaker, noted for her business acumen, financial expertise, and engaging style. Her specialties include executive coaching, strategic planning, succession planning, leadership acceleration, organizational redesign and change, and HR strategy. She is an authority in the behavioral implications of large-scale organizational change. Debbie works with key performers from executive to frontline, helping them target the most critical behaviors to enact their change initiatives and deliver measurable, bottom-line results.

Topics: Leadership


Written by ALULA