Sending a Message That You Don't Care, by Christine Pearson. Published in the NY Times on May 14, 2010.
As technological devices have become more portable and more popular, they have enhanced our connectedness at work. But they have also led to a greater degree of incivility -- a trend that is damaging our workplace relationships.
For more than a decade, my colleagues and I have gathered data on incivility from more than 9,000 managers and workers across the United States, and we are continuing this work internationally. We have learned a great deal about the problems causes and consequences.
I define incivility as behavior, seemingly inconsequential to the doer, that others perceive as inconsiderate. Electronic devices lead to more incivility because of their powerful ability to claim our attention -- no matter where we are or what we are doing. No one likes to be snubbed, of course, but the offense can take on a new edge when the winner is a machine.
Some younger employees may not be as concerned, as they are already more likely to communicate electronically. Indeed, if everyone is texting at once, it may seem like no harm, no foul.
Chances are, however, that if you ignore your colleagues while jabbering on your cellphone, keep others waiting for an appointment while you check your e-mail or send something electronically that should be delivered in person, some people will see you as inconsiderate.
One of the most annoying examples is texting and checking e-mail while working with colleagues. Some workers would call this disruptive; others would say it is downright insulting.
I have given lectures on incivility around the globe. When I ask audiences whether anyone considers sending e-mail or texts during meetings uncivil, almost everyone raises their hand. Then, when I ask whether anyone in the audience sends texts or e-mail during meetings, about two-thirds acknowledge the habit. (Presumably, there are still more who do not want to admit it.) Clearly, many of us recognize the problem. So why do we perpetuate it?
I often hear this rationalization: It is a way to multitask and increase efficiency. But neuroscientists tell us that dividing our attention between competing stimuli instead of handling tasks one at a time actually makes us less efficient. Still, the illusion that multitasking can aid productivity is powerful. And it is abetted by the fact that splitting our attention 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. Count how many times this happens each day, and you begin to understand the cumulative effect of electronic incivility in the workplace. For one thing, other workers need to pick up the slack caused by the wandering attention and diluted energies of their e-cruising colleagues.
Not only that, when people disappear from formal or informal meetings via their electronic devices, their colleagues interpret it this way: You are less important to me than my cellphone; P.D.A.; laptop; or latest gizmo.
In my research, I have learned that when employees behave in an uncivil way, their colleagues may take retribution. They might withhold information -- for example, by forgetting to include the offenders name on a final product. Or they might see to it that he or she ends up with a less desirable task next time. Or they might even refuse to work with the person again.
Although electronic departures are irritating, they will surely continue. So how can you minimize their impact?
- Keep your own use of electronic devices at a minimum when interacting with others. If you have an urgent need to use one, let others know.
- If you are on the receiving end of an electronic disappearing act and want face-to-face attention, politely ask for it.
- If you are a manager, emphasize that such face-to-face time is valuable. Consider imposing a moratorium on devices during some meetings, but allowing more breaks so that everyone can check their e-mail, texts and networking accounts. And, most of all, set guidelines about what is and is not reasonable, and hold everyone to them -- including yourself.
Author: Christine Pearson is a professor of international business at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Phoenix and a co-author of The Cost of Bad Behavior.