It was Tim O’Neill in the Bank of Ireland who first posed the question: “Have you noticed an increase in people messing with their phones during meetings?” Now, here’s the good news. People who do this generally put their phones on ‘silent’. They sit around the conference table and are not be troubled by the weird and wonderful ringtones of incoming calls. The bad news is that they are constantly monitoring email and text message traffic during meetings, sometimes ‘under the table’ – hoping the rest of us will not notice. Own up. Are you guilty as charged?
Multiple Tasking: Following Tim’s observation, I conducted a mini-survey with several managers spotted using phones during meetings, asking the killer question: “Why do you do this?” The responses ranged from the serious (“This game is 24/7; you’ve no idea”) to the semi-flippant (“Hey, it’s not only women who can multiple-task”). By the way, it’s not exclusively a male phenomena; woman are just as likely to be the ‘silent phone type’ at meetings. A particular annoyance is Managers who play with their phones to communicate to the world ‘Look at me, I’m busy and important’, like a child looking for attention.
Focused Work: In a recent book (Accidental Leadership) I wrote about the use and abuse of email – and why senior managers often exhibit a form of Executive ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), finding it hard to stay focused on the job in hand. While I understand the instinct to stay ‘in touch’ and remain connected with what’s going on generally, this should not be at the expense of losing focus on what you are doing at any moment in time. If you continually elevate urgency over importance, you dilute your own effectiveness. Executives are not paid for ‘being up to date’ but for making strategically important decisions – which requires a depth of understanding.
Face to Face: Meetings provide an opportunity for face-to-face interaction, a deeper level of communication than you can have on your mobile or Skype teleconference. At meetings you listen with your ears and with your eyes – to what is said and what’s not said. Body language demonstrates the level of conviction and ‘leaks’ what people are really thinking. You can’t tune into body language if you are searching Wikipedia about daycare options in Swords or following Samantha Mumba’s lovelife on Twitter.
Boring Meetings: Agreed. Some meetings are really boring. They don’t add value. They have badly scoped agendas, sucking up to the boss and poor quality discussions. If this is the case in your organisation, then fix the root problem, and make the meetings work well. Don’t attend in body, but remain intellectually elsewhere, playing with that stupid phone. Turn off electronic interruptions that keep you from being mentally present.
The message is simple. Learn to listen with your eyes. Because, as Susan Scott remanded us in her book Fierce Conversations, the next dialogue you have could be the most important conversation of your life. Don’t ‘not be there’ when it happens.
PS A recent very funny article in the Guardian newspaper highlighted a number of ways to make meetings more interesting. Perhaps you could try some of these at your next corporate gathering:
1. Discreetly clasp hold of someone’s hand and whisper: “can you feel it?” from the corner of your mouth.
2. Draw enormous genitalia on your notepad and show it to the person next to you for their approval.
3. Wear a hands free phone headset throughout, once in a while drift off into an unrelated conversation, such as: “I don’t care if there are no dwarfs, just get the show done!”
4. Respond to a serious question with: “I don’t know what to say, obviously I’m flattered, but it’s all happened so fast”.
5. Use ‘Nam style jargon such as “what’s the ETA?”, “who’s on recon?” and “Charlie don’t surf”.
6. Shave one of your forearms.
7. Reflect sunlight into everyone’s eyes off your watch face.
8. Pull out a large roll of bank notes and count them demonstratively.
9. Use a large hunting knife to point at your visual aids.
10. Produce a hamster from your pocket and suggest throwing it to one another as a means of idea-exchange.
PPS: Matt Merrigan in SIPTU said that if I write any more articles about Louie, we’ll have to change the name from ‘Confessions of a Consultant’ to ‘The Dog Blog’. Point taken. Nothing more on dogs (for now…).
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