In our 2007 book
, Contented Cows MOOve Faster, we included
a chapter on the vital role a leader plays in
communicating with his/her troops, and transmitting
real world reality back up the line. We noted that,
despite all the information transmission modes and
methods now available to us (think Crackberry,
podcasts, blast email, conference calls, et. al.) we do
a poorer job of communicating, as in making
meaning, than ever.
It's not that we don't use the available devices, in fact,
quite the opposite. As the result of all the pitches,
directives, updates, and FYI's being constantly
beamed about, most of us go thru the day feeling as
though our lips are permanently fused to an
informational fire hose. While the "word" may be
getting out, it is impossible for the human mind to
deal with all that stuff.
There are additional unintended consequences to
this situation. The frantic effort to deal with the
constant barrage of data simply wears people out.
Working your way through a hundred or more emails
(probably ten of which are worthwhile), realizing that
more are simultaneously arriving over the transom is
tedious and tiresome, not to mention a bit
depressing. Exchanging voicemail messages
nonstop via cell phone while driving across town to
meetings is equally exhausting, and dangerous.
The 2nd and more lasting impact has to do with the
fact that the over-reliance on all this communications
capacity plays an important role in the "dumbing
down" of our workforce. I witnessed it over the past
month as my wife, who works at a popular coffee
shop, subbed for a vacationing store manager.
Despite the fact that there was a designated shift
leader present each day during the entire 18-hour
business cycle, her cell phone and indeed our home
phone rang non-stop. Rather than thinking for
themselves about what to do when the store ran out of
straws or some other consumable, the reflex action
was to reach out to the most senior person within
their sphere for guidance and direction. Each of the
callers was an otherwise competent human being at
least 18 years of age. While they had no doubt all
been told that they were "empowered" to do their jobs
and take care of customers, something (perhaps the
fear of making a mistake, or the unwillingness to think
while working) was causing them to behave
otherwise. We see it regularly in our interactions with
managers as they are bombarded with extremely
tactical issues from supposedly well-trained and
empowered subordinate staff.
One of the clear downsides of this is that regardless
of one's position in the pecking order, the opportunity
to learn and grow is compromised as the boss (I
hesitate to use the expression, "the decider") is never
out of the loop. In a not too distant time, that wasn't the
case. When the boss was out of the office at a
meeting, or on vacation, they were gone, and
somebody had to step up and make a decision.
Usually it was the right call; sometimes it wasn't, but
either way, you learned from it. Today, both that
opportunity to learn AND the opportunity to get away
are compromised by the ever present and oft-
exercised ability to reach out and touch someone.
1. The fact that we can be constantly available
to our staff doesn't mean that we should be. It's
good for them and us when we periodically (usually
with advance notice) go dark for a few hours or days.
An adult lifetime of business travel has caused me to
look forward to those opportunities when I can get out
of the office, untether, and do some thinking. Though
air travel is a hassle, it's still relatively peaceful once
you finally get to 39,000 feet. I don't know why it's the
case, but it is considerably easier to do some blue
sky thinking when you really are looking out at blue
2. Unplugging does require some pre-planning.
Someone needs to be "in charge" when you're away,
and others, including your boss need to know it, in
advance. Leaving a person in charge in your absence
is a great way to get someone on your team some
developmental experience. It is also a good way of
ensuring that you don't come back from a four-day trip
with four days of work waiting for you. It needn't always
be the same person, either. Rotate the assignment
and see how different people fare when exposed to
the additional responsibility. To the degree possible,
you should also make sure that the person being
left "in charge" is truly in charge, with real authority to
act in your absence.
3. Putting someone in charge during your absence
involves the absolute certainty that they won't always
do things exactly as you do. And, they'll make some
mistakes. Get over it. It's called learning.
4. The first person you have to manage in untethering
is you. As so many baby-boomers do with
the 'helicopter parenting' of their offspring, we must
resolve not to ruin the going dark experience for
others and ourselves by continuing to hover when we