Sending a Message That You Don’t Care

June 12, 2010

Texting, emailing, or taking cell phone calls during meetings is a pet peeve of many professionals… and yet many professionals are themselves guilty of the same impolite behavior.  Some new research offers an explanation, of sorts, in the form of “the group-preserving functions of dissociating.”  It turns out that our electronic devices are (over-) feeding a human need to, at times, “disconnect,” and in the process undermining both teamwork and good manners.

Christine Pearson, professor of international business at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Phoenix and a co-author of “The Cost of Bad Behavior,” writes on the subject in the May 16 New York Times:

Still, the illusion that multitasking can aid productivity is powerful. And it’s abetted by the fact that splitting our Texting in mtgsattention between real and virtual worlds can produce a kind of neural intoxication, research shows.

Through our devices, we find a way to disappear without leaving the room. By splitting ourselves off and reaching out electronically, we fill empty interpersonal space and ignite our senses. We can find relief and a fleeting sense of freedom.

Decades ago, the sociologist Barry Schwartz commended the group-preserving functions of dissociating. Everyone, he said, reaches a threshold beyond which working with others is irritating, even unendurable.

Finding a mental escape can help us deal with the problem. But electronic devices have led to a serious overuse of this strategy — to the detriment of everyone.

We tend not to argue with sociologists, so maybe there’s something to this explanation.  But in our experience the “texting/emailing during meetings” is at its core about trying to multi-task in a world where everyone is busy and being bombarded with messages throughout the day.  The problem is that, while there is no rudeness intended, it is often perceived that way and understandably so.  It’s just hard to claim you value relationships and then not have the courtesy to really focus on what the other person is saying.  Moreover, the preponderance of research shows true multi-tasking is a myth – you really can’t concentrate on more than one thing at the same time.  So we try to turn off the devices during meetings, both internally and with entrepreneurs, and give our full attention to the matters being discussed.  And though we don’t often complain when others do it to us, it does bother us.  So we’ll do our part to hold the emails and calls for after the meeting and hope that others will do the same.

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