If You Multitask During Meetings, Your Team Will, Too

From HBR

This has become one of my biggest pet peeves at modern companies. And it is everywhere.

Someone calls a meeting and 5 people show up, each carrying a laptop. Maybe you, as the meeting owner, kick things off.

But then, I see your eyes drawn to your email inbox. During the meeting. While someone else is saying something. Electronically, someone else has asked for your attention, and you’ve given it to them. I’m not the only one who saw this. Everyone saw it. And three things happened:

  1. You demonstrated that your priority #1 at the moment is elsewhere
  2. You have begun multitasking, which means you’ll be far less effective at both writing your email and participating in the meeting. Yes, I know you think you’re good at multitasking, but while you’re busy typing away at your keyboard, your body language is telling everyone else in the room that this email is more important than the meeting you just called.
  3. You are setting an example. At your company, it’s OK for someone to publicly multitask and be visibly not-their-best-selves.

#3 is the worst because it will amplify across the team over time. It’s a culture-changer.

By the way, I’m not perfect. I’ve done this too, and I appreciate how easy it is to slip into the habit. And I’ve learned how it erodes the attention of the room, reduces the value of the (expensive) meeting, and ultimately reduces your own leverage and perception at the company. You have forfeited an opportunity to demonstrate your effectiveness up and down through the org.

What if you’re merely a participant? An invitee? Is it OK to multitask then?

No.

If you’re in a leadership or management position, you’ve just wasted one of the highest leverage opportunities you will ever get to influence this team. The group is paying attention to you, whether you realize it (or want it) or not. They are tuned into your body language, your mood, the words you choose, and your reactions.

You’ve been given this precious opportunity to lead by example — by asking challenging questions, watching the reactions of the folks in the room, deciding which feedback to give to whom and when, and of course devoting the proper amount of mental energy to the problem at hand. You think the topic at hand is beneath you, or a waste of time? You’re absolutely wrong. Absolutely. It’s an opportunity to lead. Every moment is an opportunity to lead. If the topic at hand is below your pay grade, then your focus needs to shift to the team and the org.

And you can’t do this when you’re writing an email.

As a leader you’ve signed for your every move to be visible and analyzed. And then copied (often incorrectly, inaccurately, in-letter-but-not-spirit, and sometimes just poorly). This means people see and hear every single slip, every missed detail. This is one of those slip-ups. But the upside is that over time you’ll get to see them reflect your strengths as well. And exceed them. It’s one of the most gratifying feelings I’ve ever felt in my life.

Don’t waste one of the most effective mechanisms to influence your team because you just couldn’t keep your email client closed.