Can You Hear Me Now?
Unfortunately, as history tells us, even good technology can yield bad results.
The quilt of techno-progress is unquestionably sewn with the thread of communications, and communications is fundamental to everything we do. Immediate access to global information, coupled with lightning fast throughput, have proven a boon to civilization. Certainly the ad men want us believe that our businesses can now be managed from the latest smart phone.
But, how have these amazing technological advances really affected business operations, management style, and organizational structure?
If you asked me to cite one material consequence of this technological transformation it would be the word “disconnect.” Simply stated, with all these miraculous innovations we have incrementally lost direct contact with each other, which, in turn, has eroded the quality of our performance on so many levels.
Let’s explore a few.
- Email is probably the best and the worst by-product of technology. Email has greatly increased the speed with which we communicate while reducing the quality of that communication. How often do we simply zip off an email without much thought to the content? How about the last time you fired off a pointed or rude email in the heat of the moment? Think about that exchange and how it would be different if you were actually speaking to the recipient by phone or in person. How about “reply to all” as the chain grows exponentially or accidentally including someone you were talking about?
I have made such mistakes. However, my perspective most often changed when I took the time to study the situation and speak directly to the people involved before making a decision. It is unquestionably always best to meet face to face or speak directly. You can’t really understand other people unless you look into their eyes and shake their hands.
The practical reality, however, is that our expanded responsibilities, work, and travel schedules allow little time for thoughtful nuanced, direct communications. There are some things we can do to mitigate the harmful effects of email detachment.
- Think about what we write and how we write it. The tone of an email is often very different from the tone of voice to voice or face-to-face discussions.
- When a situation or comment makes you angry, wait a while before firing back, and, if possible, sleep on it.
- Take the time to pick up the phone and discuss the situation or problem with your staff, your colleagues, or the customer.
The typical management career path has changed drastically as well. Managers often lack “ground up” experience, so they are often disconnected from the function they are hired to manage. Much of this disconnect is a consequence of where today’s managers come from. For many years, management was recruited from within with the requirement for experience front and center. While it’s true that the best soldier is not necessarily the best general, conversely an MBA does not automatically make a good manager. A person’s credentials should not overshadow his personality, attitude, and track record (especially if sourced internally).
- The modern business process has a tendency to overshadow the mission. Too often, managers are more concerned with organizational policy, rules, or process than with equitably settling the issue at hand. Too often, a manager’s performance is judged primarily on the bottom line. It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers, especially if your company uses the spreadsheet as the primary measure of your performance and that of your staff. Of course, bottom-line performance and meaningful metrics are important (people are in business to make money unless you work for the government). However, I would submit that focus on the numbers to the exclusion of other aspects of organizational management is a big mistake. Managers who worship at the altar of the spreadsheet neglect effectively communicating with customers and staff because to do so muddies the nice, neat business process.
- The overall result of the aforementioned issues may be managing instead of leading. You can manage your finances, your time, cattle, and your life, but people respond much better to leadership. And leadership cannot be attained by relying on insulated communications.
The Declaration of Independence and the result U.S. Constitution serve as examples of the difference between effective governance with the consent of the governed and fiat. People will probably do what they’re told by their managers even if they don’t respect them as leaders. How well they perform is another question. The manager who stays connected personally, takes the time to explain what’s happening, interfaces directly with customers, and supports subordinates will find he has an organization willing to go the extra mile.
The manager we all know who essentially draws his or her power from hunkering down in an office, mining information, developing charts based on questionable metrics, using that information to embarrass or devalue others in meetings, and telling senior management what he believes they want to hear is enabled by the technology disconnect. This manager is insulated by layers of subordinate management and don’t really understand the people he is responsible for. This type of manager may be a rising star in his or her organization; however, he will probably never gain the true respect of staff or senior management. Unfortunately, the acceptance of mediocrity as the norm means this type of individual will always be part of the organization.
- It is inevitable Murphy’s Law can be expect to derail a planned maintenance activity, commissioning, or some other activity. The result is likely to be an angry client. How do you deal with an irate client? If you ignore him, the client will probably go away (permanently). It’s also easy to stay disconnected and maintain a safe distance via the impassionate email resting on a corporate policy. It takes a bit more courage to meet with that customer face to face as quickly as possible while he is still irate. This alone will demonstrate to the customer that you and your company are serious about your products, services, and his facility. These clients often become your best customers based on your response to a problem.
These are but a few examples of how technological advances have disconnected us from each other. This theme holds true in our personal lives as well. The next time you are ready to hit send take a moment to think about your message, the tone of your email, and how the person on the other end will perceive your words. Pick up the phone or meet face to face instead. You won’t be sorry