The Perils of Textmania

When texting was first adopted in the workplace, it was used primarily for emergencies, such as resolving critical customer problems, rescheduling crucial meetings, dealing with service interruptions, or issuing vital, staff-wide notifications. Now texting is just another way we stay in touch, even at work.

Unfortunately, texting puts us on high alert and makes us vulnerable to constant interruptions. Many studies have detailed the negative psychological impacts. Each and every text conveys such a forceful sense of urgency that the text notification sound triggers a Pavlovian sense of expectation: Whenever we hear a ping, our minds do the equivalent of sitting up and begging for a biscuit.

Occasionally, a workplace text will announce a true emergency (“The system is down”) or thrilling success (“We got the contract!”), but more typically, work-related texts are inconsequential and disappointing. And yet texting’s ability to cut through everything else that’s going on creates real risks in the workplace, two of which have serious and far-reaching implications.

Texting the Leader

Any text message can seem more significant than the same information delivered via any other mode, but urgency is not a good way to classify what matters and what doesn’t. And if you ever decried PowerPoint as a simplistic and reductive way to present information (read about the Challenger disaster), texting is myriad times terser, less nuanced, and therefore even more liable to be understood and interpreted inaccurately.

Constant pinging in the office and at home can send a leader’s stress levels soaring, which bodes ill for dispassionate decision-making and reduces thoughtful long-term planning. It simultaneously introduces several cultural and interpersonal difficulties: The people most likely to text are often squeaky-wheel attention seekers who enjoy drama or need immediate answers because they have no patience or leave things till the last minute.

Texting also appeals to people who don’t like to give a complete explanation or present multiple data sets as part of the decision process, or who get a heightened sense of intimacy and power from extra access to the boss.

Meanwhile, people who are nervous about interacting with the boss seldom indulge in the chatty, casual, pared-down interactions that are characteristic of texting, and therefore may be left out of significant matters.

Texting in Meetings

Another disturbing dynamic involves employees who text each other during meetings as a way of communicating secretly in public. Their messages may have positive intent, like reminding a new sales rep to emphasize a doohickey’s special features or asking a colleague when the next meeting is scheduled.

But some people text each other during meetings to express negative or even disparaging views. Although a group leader can handle public dissension or heckling, secret texting can create competing or conflicting situations that cannot be easily addressed or remedied. Talk about setting up a no-trust situation!

Surreptitious texting is like talking behind someone’s back. Information is intentionally shared with some participants but not with others — often to their detriment. Certain people are left out and others gain an unfair advantage of relationship, often while distracting each other from the full meeting’s details and discussions.

Texting can create enhanced participation for all, but only if it’s shared with all — the way you might LiveTweet a meeting’s proceedings or specifically ask for audience comments to be recorded for future review or additional discussion.

Real Communication Devices

Of course you could make rules — like no texting in meetings, or keeping all smartphones off or face down — but enforcement is tricky if not impossible. There are teleconferences where you can’t tell what’s happening behind the scenes and there will always be individuals who are so triggered by the ping that they can’t help checking.

In the short term, you can explain that texting gets in the way of real communication. But in the long term? Build trust, attention, and interpersonal skills. They’re the only tools that can truly counteract textmania.

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