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Mutually assured distraction

One of the questions I am frequently asked in workshops is, “How do we deal with people emailing and texting in our meetings or presentations or training sessions?” This is not easy to answer, especially when the person using the smart phone is above you in the organization. Using smartphones 24/7 to text, email, or use social networks happens constantly – and not just at work. It happens at lunch with colleagues and friends. It happens when I’m on a walk in the evening with Jon. It happens (illegally in Kansas) while people are driving.

It is a scientific fact that we cannot multi-task. We can only do one thing at a time. The more we jump from task-to-task, the lower our productivity and quality of work becomes. And yet we allow our meetings and personal conversations to be constantly interrupted – distracted by the technology at hand.

One workplace strategy is to use ground rules in meetings. One of the ground rules might be: Show respect by giving full attention to our discussion; if you have to take a call or email, excuse yourself from the meeting. In classrooms, I state that I expect students to give their full attention to the dialogue and activities; if they have to take an emergency call, I ask them to leave the classroom. During time with family and friends, I often choose to turn my phone to vibrate or off, which allows me to focus on the experience we are creating and sharing.

When any of us choose to allow constant interruptions of conversations, activities, and even decision-making processes, we are chosing to function at levels that undermine our goals and relationships. We are practicing “mutually assured distraction.”

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tommy #

    Right on, Kathleen. I think the ground rules are a great way to address this and I practice that myself.

    I also wonder about the proliferation of tablet technology and how that might be integrated into our gatherings without intensifying the distraction issue. In my case, I use a tablet (and sometimes a laptop) for note taking. Out of respect for the group leader and attendees I usually declare that I really am note taking and not playing Angry Birds, but sometimes I think these announcements come across as showy and self serving. It really depends on the environment, but I try to be sensitive to the fact that I’m not encouraging bad tech etiquette by using technology productively. Each situation is different and I try to use my best judgment. In the end, I find that communication and mutual respect are best.

    April 18, 2011
    • friesengroup #

      Good question, Tommy. I like your solution as it opens the door for others to use technology for practical purposes in meetings. I’ve had a note taker create emails with the follow-up and action items for team members as the meeting progressed. These were quickly sent at the end of the discussion, allowing everyone else to focus on the dialogue. It is a matter of clearly defining roles and expections. Your final comment is well stated, “communication and mutual respect are best.”

      April 18, 2011

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