CommunicationLeadershipSoft skills
Want an Engaged, Motivated Team? Stop Phubbing and Try Mono-tasking.

A recent survey study found that when leaders are distracted by their phones, it undermines trust, which, in turn, lowers employee engagement. Phubbing is a […]

A recent survey study found that when leaders are distracted by their phones, it undermines trust, which, in turn, lowers employee engagement.

Phubbing is a combination of phone+ snubbing – the act of snubbing people present with us to check the phone or even chat on the phone.
In the workplace, it can be extended to checking your emails when you are in a (virtual) meeting or even checking your phone or email when somebody walks into your office.

There is no way around it – as Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter say in their new book “Compassionate Leader”: “Leadership is about connection, and there is no possibility of connection if we are not present – if we aren’t there, we can’t care.” 


I can confirm this from my own experience and from my work with teams where engagement is low, and/or people don’t have much respect for their boss.
The boss’s phubbing is a common complaint and there is a good reason for it: recent studies found that phubbing threatens four “fundamental needs” – belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence and control – by making phubbed people feel excluded and disrespected. 

And if that’s the impact on them, the impact on you is that your reputation suffers.
You become the boss who “doesn’t care”, the boss who “doesn’t listen” and this can severely disrupt your present-moment, in-person relationships.

Some studies found that phubbing reduces trust and engagement in the moment by more than 70%.

Being present with people that we lead is important. Being an effective leader requires doing hard things, and doing hard things is impossible if we are not fully there. In fact, as Hougaard and Carter point out: “If you want to do hard things required in leadership really poorly, then be inattentive.”


But this is exactly our big problem. We are now living in a serious crisis of attention.
We are surrounded by technology that is designed to grab our attention and reward us for multitasking.
And here is the irony: our brain is capable of producing only one or two thoughts at a time, and it cannot multitask.
When the neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) studied human brain under so called “multi-tasking” activity, they found that when people believe they are doing several things at once, they are actually just juggling.
“They’re switching back and forth. They don’t notice the switching because their brain sort of papers it over, to give a seamless experience of consciousness. But what they’re actually doing, is switching and reconfiguring their brain moment-to-moment, task-to-task—[and] that comes with a cost.” explained professor Earl Miller, one of the leading neuroscientists at the MIT.
“Your performance drops, you’re slower – all as a result of the switching.” he added. Apparently, multitasking degrades your attention and thinking by startling 20%-30%, depending on the tasks.
And if this isn’t bad enough, every time you interrupt your focus and switch your attention to something else, it takes you an average of 23 minutes to get back to the same level of focus you had before you were disturbed. It’s a very inefficient way to work. 

So what can we do?

One of the concepts that has been around for a while and that might be of great help is mono-tasking: “the practice of dedicating oneself to a given task and minimizing potential interruptions until the task is completed or a significant period of time has elapsed”.
One of my collaborators, Christian Espinosa talks about this method in his book “The Smartest Person in The Room” 
Christian, who has run multiple cyber-security companies, is a US Air Force veteran and has 24 Ironman triathlons, 300 skydives, and 50-mile ultramarathons under his belt among other achievements, credits his remarkable success as an ultra-endurance athlete and as a CEO to mono-tasking.
He maintains that being fully present in the moment is one of the best guarantees of ultra-productivity, high performance and trusting, respectful relationships.

So next time you are having a video call with your team members, focus on just that. Put away your phone and set your computer to “Do not disturb”.

In his new book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again” the best-selling author and journalist Johann Hari has admitted that he locks his phone in a safe to have uninterrupted deep work. Sounds like a dramatic measure, but knowing how addictive some technology is, this might a practical measure to maintain your focus.

Over to you: Are you a phubbing leader? What will you do today to reduce this unproductive and demotivating habit?

With leadership greetings,