11/20/2014 05:52 EST | Updated 01/20/2015 05:59 EST

Why You Should Turn Off Technology and Listen When People Talk

Many of us have experienced conference-call hell. That's where a bunch of people do their darnedest to be heard from, doing little, if any, listening to anybody else on the call. I recently had one of those calls, during which one individual was in full "sell, sell, sell" mode.

This person was so intent on selling, he didn't realize, or care very much, that I -- and others -- might want to add to the conversation. It was clear he had key messages he wanted to offer and wanted to ensure he got them across -- to the exclusion of any input from others. Like any other crazy-busy person, I found myself glancing at my computer and starting to answer e-mails. I shut down. I don't believe I was alone in this clearly negative workplace behavior.

As I was zoning out of the meeting, I began to realize that it's more than likely I've caused others to silently withdraw at times. It got me thinking. One of the biggest problems in the workplace is that we don't have time to listen to each other. Work life is getting faster and more frantic. "I am so busy" seems to be the standard response when you ask people how they are.

Statistics bear this out. Flatter, do-more-with-less corporate structures have managers doing more work and less reflecting and thinking, all the while relying on "time-saving" technology. Research shows this technology is developing into a roadblock for corporations that want to develop sustainable leadership.

Emails: 25 per cent of your day

Leaders aren't leading, or developing the next generation of leaders, because they've been tied to the very technologies designed to set them free -- or at least free up more of their time.

Chances are your employees are answering e-mails or juggling phone calls for most of their work day. The average worker in 2015 will get 125 e-mails a day, 13 of which will be spam (Email Statistics Report 2011-2015 from the Radicati Group). That means, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, that you're spending more than 25 per cent of your work day, 2.5 hours, just reading and responding to e-mails. This doesn't include all the Instant Messages and social-networking communications, nor listening to and answering voice mails, nor talking to live people by phone.

Meetings: 24 hours a week

Then there are meetings. On average, a non-public-sector worker spends 24 hours a week in meetings -- more than half a work week (Bain Consulting), and combined with the one-quarter of a work week spent answering e-mails, the result is that one quarter or less of an average work week can be devoted to assigned tasks. So you can probably guess how much time is left over for initiatives such as team building and people development. Yep, zero, zip, zilch.


So what? you might say. Real work has to get done, and what are the costs if you don't spend time listening and communicating with your team? Well, the answer is that the costs are surprisingly high: rising levels of employee burnout, for starters. Burnout, our DMS indexing finds, is reflected in high engagement scores, which are accompanied by low value and low trust scores. High engagement scores that aren't complemented by high value and trust scores mean your team is occupied with meetings and answering e-mail, with little to nothing left over for development. This is worrisome. Peter Drucker said years ago that in an innovative and productive company, a manager's job is to develop people, not complete tasks.

Another side-effect of burnout we see emerging in the data is the tendency for employees to become more insular, the busier they get. They narrow-cast down to a shrinking set of tasks. This is best demonstrated by the statement, "We are too busy. How can we take on anything new?"

If there's one aspect about the future in business we can all agree on, it's that it will be different from today. A focus on task-oriented detail, unwillingness to challenge the status quo or take on new projects, were the major reason Microsoft stood by and watched technology competitors like Google and Apple ride a wave of innovation. Too busy today can quickly turn into too late in technology. Other industries may move slower, but the same rules apply.

We are too busy

Many brilliant people at Microsoft saw the future that Apple, Google and other companies have capitalized on. They received variations on the corporate don't bug me: "We are too busy; don't bother me with that right now; we can talk later." Our research shows there is no chat later. In fact, those people who are pushing new ideas are usually the first ones to leave as soon as they get a chance. They realize the company is dying, and there's no future for an organization that hasn't time for new ideas. It's sad that it takes non-innovators much longer to realize the corporate culture is dead, and the rest of the body is destined to follow.

When you think of what you need most, it's likely time. Time to rest, to get "stuff" done, to think, and plan for the future. It is the most precious resource in organizations today.

We don't have the ability to slow time, let alone make it stop, and regular doses of caffeine only go so far. Based on my experience, I have two suggestions until something better comes along.

Turn off your technology and pay attention when someone is speaking to you. And I'm off to the next meeting.


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