Is cell phone use really improper in meetings?

Nothing infuriates my Mom more, these days, than when one of us pulls out a cell phone at a time she considers family time. You know, when everyone is gathered in a room, at least until my Mom decides she wants to check something on her phone.

To be fair, we all have this skewed perspective of reality. When we want to be present, we get upset at those that are surfing the Internet on their phone. When someone else wants to be present, we're oblivious of the fact as we surf the Internet on our phone.

And the phones aren't just a personal problem; they can become a professional problem too. A decade ago, the distraction was likely a laptop. Today, it's a cellphone that distracts people from being present, especially in meetings.

When people describe the problem of having a meeting, with lots of people buried in their phones, I can't help but think of the ridiculous games people come up with in social situations to try to force others to get off their phones.

One that comes to mind is phone stacking, where people stack their phones in the middle of the table while dining out, and the first person to pickup their phone has to pay for the entire bill.

Another that comes to mind, and more of what my Mom would appreciate, would be confiscating phones for the duration of a meeting. Say for example, there's a basket by the door of the meeting room where everyone places their phone upon entry.

All of these seem plausible but they're actually specious attempts to cure the symptoms of an underlying problem.

Whether it's the boardroom, a night out with friends, or sipping wine with the family, the phone is not the problem. In fact, the phone is a good thing. A phone is the physical embodiment of the mental state of those around you. It's a canary in the coalmine, when it comes out it's a sign of something.

But don't be so quick to jump to conclusions about what it means. In a meeting, someone might be bored, they might be worried about a fire they're fighting in their department, they may be looking up relevant information to a discussion, they may not have done their homework, or they simply may not have a stake in what is currently being discussed.

These are just a few of the possible underlying causes that lead to the cell phone coming out of the pocket. While it is tempting to ban cell phones in meetings--or other parts of life--that won't solve anything.

That's the coercive side of us wanting to force people into compliance. Thinking there's only one explanation for the cell phones coming out: people are rude. And of course, wanting to publicly admonish them accordingly.

Perhaps you've tried asking people to pay attention during the meeting. Again, that's the coercive side of us wanting a quick fix to the problem we perceive, and I'm sure you've noticed compliance is short lived.

Try timely, objective feedback as a quick fix

Instead of coercion, try to figure out the underlying cause that led to the cell phone coming out of the pocket. And keep in mind, even if there are two or three people doing it in a meeting, they each likely have a separate reason.

Put aside any judgment about why you think people have their phones out. You might start out by stating the obvious, with timely feedback, right during the meeting. Tell people you notice several people on their phones, ask them if there's something that needs to change.

Perhaps the meeting is boring; perhaps you're discussing something they're not responsible for. In these situations, you might be able to change the meeting, perhaps bring it to a close, to deal with the problem.

If you do this, watch your language, anything assumptive will be unskillful. You might suggest explanations in a condoning fashion: "I see several people using their phones and laptops, should we take the current discussion offline and move on to other agenda items?"

Being objective and inquisitive might solve your problem rather quickly.

Individual follow up to find the cause of the problem

If timely feedback doesn't work, or seems likely to blow up the situation, then you may want to consider following up privately with individuals.

You don't want to be emotional in your approach, remain objective. There's a difference between "Why can't you show some respect in meetings, this is unbecoming behavior for someone in your position" and "I notice you use your phone in meetings, and it seems as a result we make many decisions without hearing from you, are we leaving you out? What can we do to make more productive for all of us?"

Talking individually is also a great way to avoid the normative pressure within a group situation where people may not be comfortable voicing the real reason why they were on their cell phone. For example, someone may not have prepared for the meeting and may have been trying to catch up by reading chains of emails.

You might also need to involve an objective third party. If you're the boss, even in private, someone may not readily divulge their rationale if they feel like they may be reprimanded for it. Regardless how free spirited you think you are as a boss, your employees may not see the relationship that way, for reasons beyond your control.

You might also have a problem with peers following up; they may fear someone will report back to the boss. If the behavior repeats and it's affecting performance, then involving someone from another department, or outside your organization, may be necessary.

Here is a list of reasons that might be uncovered:

  • They're putting out fires via email.
  • They're exhausted either mentally or physically due to unrelated circumstances prior to the meeting.
  • Topic is outside of their purview, i.e.: another department
  • Didn't prepare for the meeting.
  • Looking up information based on conversation, to contribute to conversation
  • Boredom
  • Perhaps something tragic happened in their personal life and they're messaging loved ones.

You'll uncover many reasons beyond these. This is why finding the cause is important. It's not like someone that's bored can't doodle if they're not allowed to have their phone in the meeting. Or, someone can't daydream if they don't feel vested in the discussion. And that's why I also say cell phones are a blessing, because they're overt distractions.

Fixing the problem individually

Once you understand the cause you can do something about it. If you think it's worth doing something about.

Perhaps a little bit of cell phone use in meetings is to be expected and can be a good thing. For example, if someone is looking up relevant additional information to the discussion at hand. It might be good for them to apprise the group of what they are doing so the group can make sure they don't miss out on something important while they're typing away at a cell phone or a laptop. The group also may decide to table the discussion so adequate research can be done.

If you do involve a neutral third party, make sure you make explicit what will be reported back, if anything. I'd encourage you to consider letting the individual discuss the matter with the neutral party and then let them come up with their own conclusions about how to proceed. Let them report back, or let them quietly make changes to their behavior.

For example, in a perfect world everyone would show up prepared for a meeting. An individual could decide, of their own volition, to speak up in a meeting when they aren't prepared and ask for others to catch them up, or ask if it's ok to rearrange agenda items so they can step outside to catch up while something they are less vested in is discussed.

These are all examples where the individual can proactively address the situation. In these cases they may need to report back to make sure the environment is safe for them to speak up in these cases, to not feel threated.

Or, the individual might simply realize they are frequently unprepared because they aren't allocating enough time before meetings to prepare. Perhaps they allow people to interrupt them when they are preparing for an upcoming meeting. They may take a corrective action to prepare for meetings offsite so people cannot interrupt them. This is an intervention nobody else in the group may be aware of; others simply notice that the individual spends drastically less time on their phone during meetings.

Fix problems collectively

In talking with individuals, or the group, it may become apparent that the situation isn't an individual problem.

For example, it's not uncommon for meetings to be scheduled for hours on end. Upon reflection of agenda items, it may be obvious that the meeting cycles through various subsets of individuals.

As a result, there are times where certain individuals have nothing to do with the discussion at hand and have a legitimate claim to boredom. In this case, nothing can be done individually to remedy the situation, aside from checking out. And that may be fine for some individuals, but they may also not realize when it is time to check back in.

This is often the case with recurring meetings where prudence is not taken to ensure the people involved actually have a stake in the current discussion. A simple fix, as a group, may be to decide to split up a larger meeting into two small meetings, based on the vested subsets of individuals. For example, if there are two large projects under way, even if there is overlap, it may make sense to have separate meetings, weekly, to discuss the progress of each. Then, if there are interdependencies between the projects, to meet less frequently--but nonetheless judiciously--to discuss only the interdependent issues.

Here are some other underlying causes that might indicate a project that the group should address collectively:

  • Individuals that aren't as assertive feel that nobody listens to them--or they are frequently interrupted--so they tune out.
  • Individuals aren't committed to a prior decision and therefore don't want to be involved. They're simply forced to go along with the group.
  • Individuals feel they won't have a say in the final decision, so why bother speaking up.
  • Meetings drag on in endless pedantry.
  • Meetings tend to not be well organized; they don't have clear objectives for what needs to be accomplished.
  • People show up to discuss agenda items later in the list, which never get addressed because the first few agenda items consume all the time.
  • The group is not aligned, it's possible individual accountabilities conflict and as a result some people will win while others will lose.

If you've done the diagnosis and the cause seems to point to a group issue, leverage the group, objectively, to come up with solutions. They'll be much more vested in the solution if they have a stake in coming up with it.

To Summarize

When the cell phones come out, here are four skillful steps to address your concern:

  1. Don't take immediate offense; keep the emotions out of this. Focus on observed behavior.
  2. Determine if there's a problem worth solving. Not every use is an infraction.
  3. Diagnose the underlying cause. Unlike a canary in a coalmine that dies because of carbon monoxide, the cause of cell phone use--or other distractions--is rarely obvious.
  4. Find an appropriate solution.