Can we agree that most reasonable people would consider that behavior to be rude and most well-mannered people wouldn’t do it?
So why is it so common, and seemingly okay, for people to arrive at meeting and position their phones at just the right angle to ensure every notification is visible?
When I see that happen, it feels like there’s someone else in the meeting who wasn’t invited. I also find myself thinking that I’m not important as the person who might send a message. It’s irritating.
There’s one monthly meeting I attend where this behavior is so common that I’ve begun to do it too [head hung in shame]. I recognize the bad behavior in myself, but somehow justify it by thinking that it doesn’t matter because everyone else is doing it.
Make the case that it’s a problem
On the surface, it would appear that this behavior isn’t creating problems. If you confront people doing it, they’ll likely argue, “Who am I hurting?” They’ll also try to convince you that they are great multi-taskers.
When they make that argument with me, I am happy to point out three specific problems created by their behavior:
1. The behavior is distracting.
People who think the meeting is important and are doing their best to contribute notice these folks. They feel irritated at what they interpret as rudeness and lose their focus on the work at hand.
Often the offenders will counter with “But I don’t mean anything by it. I just have a lot of work to do.” The message is that others should not be offended. I’m afraid that doesn’t work. People have learned the rules about what constitutes polite behavior and don’t easily change their point of view when someone violates them.
2. The behavior contributes to meeting waste.
They are, after all, in the meeting. If distracted, they aren’t doing a great job of taking care of business inside or outside the conference room. We want everyone’s full effort. Anything less represents waste.
3. The behavior slows meeting progress.
Let’s assume you invited them for a reason. They have knowledge and skills you need in order to achieve your meeting goal. If they aren’t fully engaged, you don’t get from them what they could contribute. The net result is a meeting that is not as efficient or effective as it could be.
Here’s how you handle this problem
Set the expectations
First, you establish a rule that everyone can live with. I would suggest creating an expectation that includes the following components:
- The only laptop/tablet running during the meeting will be that of the note taker. You don’t want the phone gawkers to substitute another device.
- All devices should be turned off or in silent mode. Vibrations are distracting.
- We need everyone’s full attention on the meeting agenda.
- If you absolutely need to monitor a situation, then leave the room to respond.
Now I’m not promising all will agree to this. In these environments, you’ll need to make the case why your list of expectations is critical for the meeting’s success. You may also need to work out a compromise.
Enforce the rules
If you have a high-functioning team, others might help, but let’s assume it’s up to you. Here’s the enforcement approach I would suggest.
- First, remind people of the rules at the beginning of every meeting. This proactive measure is a good counter to people who are likely to forget.
- Second, people who are visibly breaking the rules should be immediately reminded to tune back into the meeting.
The hardest will be the ones who try to sneak a peek. Because they may be reasonably successful in shielding their activities from others, you might not want to point it out in front of the group. Doing so creates more of a distraction than the activity itself.
At a break or after the meeting, check in with the person. Here’s what to say. “I noticed you on your phone during the meeting even though our agreement was that people weren’t going to do that.” If she thought she could get away with it, bringing it to her attention shows her that she did not, and this will hopefully discourage the behavior in the future.
If she just can’t live by the rules, engage in a conversation about why and how the rules should be changed at subsequent meetings.
Make your meeting “can’t look away” interesting
While people say they need to monitor their phones to attend to important business, what they aren’t saying is that they expect your meeting isn’t that important or compelling.
If you work on problems that matter, keep it moving quickly, and pull people in at every opportunity; not only won’t they have time to look at their phones, they won’t want to.
Patience and persistence
You’re not likely to change behaviors immediately. That’s okay. Go for incremental improvement.
Keep the goal in mind and continue moving toward it. Eventually you will regain their attention and create a more effective meeting environment.