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The Benefits of Going Dark
By Bill Catlette

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.

Some thoughts:

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 sky.

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 are away.


Want a more engaged workforce? Want the performance benefits of creating a great place to work? Bring Bill Catlette or Richard Hadden in to speak or conduct leadership training for your organization, or to keynote your association's next convention.

Contact Bill (901- 853-9646) or Richard (904-720-0870), and let's talk about how we can make your next meeting a colossal success!

Richard Hadden and Bill Catlette
Contented Cow Partners, LLC

phone: 904-720-0870
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