Smart Leaders Know They Need to Put Their Phones Away

How smartphones can negatively impact our leadership and organizational success

Posted Apr 29, 2015

Our use of smartphone technology has transformed the way we do business. Ask your friends or colleagues what they would do if they could not access their mobile device and you are likely to see a look of panic in their eyes.

This technology has integrated into every aspect of our lives, including family dinners, romantic dates, and even business meetings. A powerful and viral video last year provoked viewers to contemplate the impacts these devices have on their social relationships.

In a recent study, researchers were interested in how mobile communication devices impacted human interactions. They asked two strangers to engage in a conversation in one of two conditions. In the first, a mobile phone was visible to the participants. In the comparison condition, no phone was in sight. 

By Official White House Photo by Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Official White House Photo by Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The results from this experiment were fascinating. Strangers who engaged in a conversation when a cellphone was present reported a significantly lower quality of relationship than their counterparts. Another powerful finding was that the mere presence of the mobile device also negatively impacted the level of trust between parties. Perhaps the most intriguing finding from this study was that the impacts of the cellphone negatively impacted relationship quality and trust only when engaged in meaningful, as opposed to casual, conversation.

Fostering positive relationships is invaluable to creating and sustaining a successful organization. How people feel about their interactions with each other is a crucial aspect of moving things forward.

Similarly, building and maintaining trust has received tremendous coverage within the business press, as it is seen as the foundation for driving long-term, sustainable growth. This belief is bolstered by the latest findings from the global Edelman Trust in Business survey, which shows that we have been, for the most part, failing miserably in this regard. Experts and observers have persuasively argued that organizations who figure out how to counteract this trend are afforded a distinct competitive advantage.

Most leaders and organizations are investing substantial human and financial capital into creating and deploying elaborate programs and approaches aimed at strengthening trust, especially during the early stages of building relationships. Recent research suggests that there is a simple, yet powerful, strategy that we can routinely employ to enhance trust and build more meaningful and positive business relationships with each other - put away our phones.

The above research provides the basis for improving our social behaviours in a business context:

1) When meeting with a new prospect, customer, or stakeholder, put away your phone. Your ability to establish a trusting and high-quality relationship with this individual may be significantly improved by this one simple act. In fact, share the research cited above with your contact. In a recent meeting I did just that, and it stimulated a wonderful conversation to start our meeting.

2) Make your one-on-one employee meetings a ‘cellphone free zone’. Keeping your Blackberry or iPhone out of sight during the meeting is a great way to show engagement. If this is not possible, it may be better to postpone the meeting to such a time when a cellphone is not needed.

3) Share this research with other members of your organization, especially those in client-facing roles. While cellphones have become a routine part of the business landscape, removing them provides a powerful competitive advantage. Ensuring we are forming the strongest bonds with our prospects and stakeholders can differentiate our organizations from the rest of the field.

While many business professionals and executives understand that checking their smartphones while in a meeting is rude and counterproductive for strong business relationships, a logical compromise has been to put our phones on the desk/table during the meeting. Yet, the research above strongly cautions against this approach - we may be undermining the very relationship we are hoping to build. The above evidence clearly indicates that putting your device away will optimize your opportunities to build a healthy relationship.

The next time you are attending a meeting, be mindful of where you keep your cellphone. Keeping it out of reach and out of mind will keep your relationship goals within reach and top of mind.

About the Author

Craig Dowden, Ph.D., holds a degree in psychology with a specialization in business.

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