The other day, someone called me. He wanted to pick my brain (feeble pickings) for some ideas and ask for some help. I was delighted with the call, both because he’s a prospect, and it was ego gratifying to be asked for the advice. But the call ended up being a waste of time–mine and the prospect’s.
See, the problem was the multitasking being done by the prospect. He was in a car–fortunately not driving, other people were in the car, having a different conversation, which my prospect would interrupt our conversation, to inject a comment into the other conversation. There were also long pauses (and some background clicking), as I could hear him texting or emailing during our conversation.
I had to repeat myself several times, I could tell he wasn’t getting it, he clearly was distracted. I suggested we speak later in the day, when he was in his office and could focus. If this were an isolated incident with this individual, it may be excusable. But it was his modus operandi–and it was the central issue to his effectiveness as a leader in the organization. His people would tell me, “he isn’t listening, he’s always multitasking,” “it takes 3-4 times of explaining the sale thing, until he understands.” “he wastes my time.” There was clearly a performance and morale problem in his organization–and his behavior was at the core of the problem.
Whenever I tried to confront it with him, he’d listen with one ear, looking at something on his computer screen, while simultaneously, texting, and every once in a while injecting an “uh-huh,” or “what was that again?”
That afternoon, I called the executive up, it was to follow up on our conversation earlier in the day. He said he was really glad I called, the issue was important, his boss was breathing down his neck. As I started to speak, I started hearing the key board, hearing the distracted responses. I stopped the conversation and hung up.
Moments later, my phone rang, it was the executive, “We must have been disconnected, what were you saying?” I responded, “No we weren’t disconnected, I hung up. Clearly, you aren’t ready to have this conversation.”
There was a moment of silence, “What do you mean, I need to get this done!” was the angry response. I replied, “This apparently isn’t important enough for you to focus on it, so I’ll wait until you are ready to be present in our discussion. Until then, we are wasting each other’s time. Would you call me when you are ready to put everything aside and pay attention solely to our conversation?” I then said good bye and hung up.
About 15 minutes later, my phone rang again. It was the executive. “I was so angry, I had to take a few minutes to calm down. What do you mean?” I explained to him what was going on, I walked him through some of the meetings I had participated in recently, how little had been accomplished, how upset his people were. We had a long conversation — the good news was he wasn’t multitasking, he was totally focused on the conversation. For the moment, he’s making a strong effort not to multitask–you can see small improvements in attitudes with his people already. They see him listening, they know he is paying attention.
We see it everyday, sometimes I fall victim myself. This morning, I had breakfast with some colleagues. It started with each of us conversing while tweeting, reading texts, looking at emails, distracted by people wandering the hotel lobby—we decided to put away our devices and pay attention to our conversation.
I did notice the tables around us. Filled with business professionals, all intent in their conversations, but most distracted by the iPhones and Blackberry’s. I wondered what was happening.
There are all sorts of studies talking about how bad multitasking is. Most studies reach the conclusion that people are less productive multitasking, than if they focused on one thing, completed it, moved on to the next.
I’m convinced, too many multitask only as a narcissistic show, “look at how busy I am,” “look at me, I have to do a lot of things at once.” It’s funny, I meet with a number of very senior and truly exceptional leaders. Each of them is confident, each of them is totally present. When we meet, it’s us speaking with each other, paying attention, engaging, and being present.
Multi-tasking is the ultimate demonstration of your lack of respect—for those who you are not paying attention to, and to yourself.
Do you respect yourself and your time enough to be present in what you are doing?
Do you respect those you are working with enough to be present and engaged in the conversation, not letting anything else distract you?