The attention to detail paradox

Attention to Detail

Let me just give you two quick stories about the concept of attention to detail before we get going here.

I had a job once where I was working freelance/contract with a tech company. (Chasing the cheddar, right?) They hired a new employee and I periodically had to work with him. If you’ve ever read this blog or can move your eyes to the right a little bit, you can see my name is “Ted Bauer.” I was on emails with this guy all the time. Finally he has to cue me up to introduce me to a vendor, and he says “Hey, my colleague here Tim Bower…” So now the vendor, who probably has 171 different BS sense of urgency projects he’s chasing, starts calling me “Tim.” You know how the cookie crumbles here: I can call them out on “Hey, that’s not actually my name,” but will anyone truly care? Or will I just look petty for interrupting the flow of “real work” getting done?

Same deal but more egregious: I had a job about six years ago where I would get on conference calls with someone in Dallas. (I live near there now, but at the time I lived in NYC.) For some reason, this dude thought my name was “Scott” or “Scotty.” (Not even the right letters.) So he’d start conference calls like “Hey, is Scotty on the line? Scott?” For a few weeks, I wouldn’t respond. After all, that’s not my name. Finally I got the deal, corrected him, and of course it happened again. And again. Then? A few more times!

Now here’s the punchline. In Story 1, when that person was hired, the memo that the CEO sent praised his “attention to detail.” Story 2: that guy got promoted a level or two. The memo announcing the promotion? It also praised his noteworthy attention to detail.

Here’s where the paradox begins.

The attention to detail paradox: The irony of recruiting

If you had to name two areas of business where attention to detail should matter the most, I’d probably come up with these two:

  • Operations
  • Recruiting

Operations is a given. They live in the details. Many people probably wouldn’t say “recruiting,” but to me it makes sense. Recruiting is the time period where you really need to get your ducks in a row on who a person is and what they can/have accomplished. If you whiff there, the next 12-16 months for that position in your company become essentially meaningless. So it would help if recruiting processes, and by definition recruiters, had a strong attention to detail.

If you’ve been on an open white-collar job market in the last few years, you probably know this ain’t the case. The hiring process is broken at most companies, predominantly rooted in a series of automated cover-your-ass moves that do nothing but alienate the best candidates. Execs screech and bellow about “the war for talent,” but so long as their bonuses are fat and people are there to help them hit the targets, they could give two shits. We all know this. It’s an “open secret.”

So here’s a great irony: Josh Bersin, one of the most respected guys in that HR/recruiting space, once said “the best advice” he could give was to have a strong attention to detail. It doesn’t seem like many in his field are chasing that advice, oddly.

The attention to detail paradox, Tier 1: Process and whatnot

Most companies love them some process, to the point that it begins to bury actual results. Process is really important to business — I am not arguing that. But oftentimes the reason we insert process is because we want to “control” some aspect of something. Sadly, usually it barely matters if that aspect is controlled.

The second tier of all this is managerial type. You tend to have “maximizers” and “satisficers.” The former are more perfectionist. It’s really hard to “get a project out the door” under these people. They want abject perfection and excruciating attention to detail. It’s important to note that these managers drive the most revenue — good! — but burn people out like crazy — bad! — so their bottom line calculation is hard. Satisficers are easy-going. It’s a bit like that “move fast and break things” deal in the tech industry.

At the intersection of “process” and “manager type,” you begin to see the attention to detail paradox come into light a bit more. Let’s take it a step further.

The attention to detail paradox: The “keep ’em in a box” concepts

A lot of times, this is what happens at work — plain and simple. For some subjective reason, a manager doesn’t like an employee. While you can fire people in most states/areas and not give a reason, this feels unprofessional to many. So, for better or worse (usually the latter), the offending employee is kept in some type of metaphysical box via something he/she “doesn’t do well.”

Some of these concepts include “professionalism,” the lack of which can doom a person’s career even if they hit all their deliverables — and “being on brand,” which means nothing except “you know how to adjust logos on a PDF.”

In short, these are concepts that keep people down and controlled — because that’s the essence of most approaches to management. Snuff out the shit you don’t like, and chase the perks for yourself.


“Attention to detail” is another one of these. Look. It’s incredibly important to be attentive to detail on your tasks and projects. I’m not arguing that. But in most cases I’ve seen — first-hand or with colleagues — it’s never that the person lacks attention to detail. It’s a managerial tool to keep people in a box, or keep their salary down, or whatever else.

And now we get to why attention to detail is often a paradox or double standard.

The attention to detail paradox / double standard

Here’s another harsh reality of the working world (there are many). At every company, there are a few different classes of projects:

  • Things the senior leadership actually cares about (revenue-focused, growth-driven)
  • Items the senior leaders pretend to care about (employee engagement, employee voice, etc.)
  • Stuff a few departments care about and prioritize, but no one else notices (silo-by-silo metrics)
  • Shit no one cares about but a few middle managers pretend to (82% of task work, give or take)
  • Concepts where it’s nearly impossible to even pretend you care

This is a major sliding scale. Up at the top, where the money is made, the attention to detail better be there — or, if it’s not there, the money better be there. Plain and simple. As you slide down this scale, though, attention to detail becomes a double standard. See, look at my second story above. That dude was doing well enough to get promoted a few times, so the brass clearly liked him. What does it matter that he regularly made me feel like crap by calling me “Scotty” when my name is Ted? It doesn’t. In my mind, this guy has no attention to detail whatsoever. He cares about what benefits him, not the actual details or context of the situation. But what does someone above him think of him? He’s a good little target-hitter, and it’s time to reward him.

This is the attention to detail paradox or double standard. If you’re doing your real job — making the brass look good and competent — then whether you actually practice attention to detail means nothing. But if you’re near the bottom of “stuff people care about,” then attention to detail is a managerial cage you’ll get placed in.

Attention to detail: The role of the big picture vs. the micro-execution

Alignment of strategy with execution is a major whiff at most companies, and that’s been backed by lots of research. (You’ve probably seen it at your job too.) There needs to be some focus on the big picture, especially when you consider most managers are horrible at providing context to employees.

One of my last bosses used to tell me often, “The devil is in the details.” I agree. She was not wrong! However, I don’t want to go to Hell or live permanently in Hades. (I likely will, but that’s for other reasons.) So while the devil is in the details, spending all your time with the devil isn’t a great answer either. Sometimes there needs to be a focus on big picture and ideas.

But when managers are allowed to screech about “attention to detail,” we miss this. We simply rush from one thing — meeting, call, stand-up — to the next thing, with no real attention to detail ourselves. And we delude everyone into thinking this cycle represents productivity, when it doesn’t.

What else would you add about attention to detail, its importance, and how managers use it?

Ted Bauer

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