If you made a list today of your top 25 business relationships and asked yourself, "How much full-on human contact have I had with these people this year?" we (Frank Wagner and I -- Frank is also a top leadership and executive coach, an expert on leadership behavior) think you'd be shocked to discover that 95 percent of it may be solely digital: e-mail, Facebook, texting or Twitter. Frank and I have stopped tweeting each other the number of times weekly we beg our clients to simply pick up the phone! We recently sat at a business dinner where, despite the opportunity for unimpeded face time, the two executives at the heads of the table were texting one another while we ate!
Up until 1990 the phone was the equivalent of e-mail, and CEOs were always telling their employees to hang up and have meetings. Now it's a win to get to voice contact. What's so powerful about full-on human contact is that it engages all aspects of our ability to access information and make informed decisions. Most meet-ups will include writing, reading, seeing, hearing, speaking and doing.
Yes, technology has expanded our network of relationships. People brag about how many friends they have on Facebook or the size of their network on LinkedIn. Yes, technology has expanded our capacity to communicate in writing. Twitter has made communication almost ubiquitous and omnipresent. Yes, technology allows our thoughts to be transmitted instantaneously at the speed of our wireless networks. It's easy. It's seemingly efficient. That is the good news.
The not-so-good news is that the side effect of all this technology is the loss of genuine connectedness. As humans we have always found in-person interaction meaningful, rich and complex. Face-to-face relationship-building also deflects the possibility for miscommunications and misunderstandings. With less physical data to interpret because of the heavy use of digital communication, more and more problems are arising between colleagues and consumers.
Psychology Today did a great piece about a social psychologist and Northwestern University law professor named Janice Nadler, who paired Northwestern law students with those from Duke University and asked each pair to agree on the purchase of a car:
Researchers instructed each team to bargain entirely through e-mail, but half the subjects were secretly told to precede the negotiation with a brief getting-to-know-you chat on the phone. The results were dramatic: Negotiators who first chatted by phone were more than four times likelier to reach an agreement than those who used only e-mail. In the study, which appeared in the Harvard Negotiation Law Review, subjects who never spoke were not only more likely to hit an impasse, but they often felt resentful and angry about the negotiation.
Our personal favorite is the famous New Yorker cartoon that shows a dog sitting on a chair in front of a computer. He turns to his doggie friend sitting on the floor and says: "On the internet, no one knows you're a dog."
Be honest -- electronically, you do not really know who the person is on the other end of your digital exchange. You can't hear their voice, which is robust with clues. You don't know how they are receiving your words or even when they are getting your message in physical-time reality. You can't assess their body language or observe their responses. The sense of professional "intimacy" we depend on is, at best, only utilizing 10 percent of our communication cues, tools and competencies. The more we rely on e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and texting as our primary ways of communicating, the less likely we are to be known by those with whom we are interdependent for our success.
What to do:
- Assess who is important to you in your professional life, those people with whom you will need a relationship strong enough to weather any storm.
- Consciously monitor how much e-mailing, texting or tweeting you rely on for building these relationships.
- Make sure that at least once a month you either speak with these people by phone or see them in person! The latter is better, even if it entails travel.
- When you do connect in person, leave enough time to communicate in greater depth so that it really strengthens your relationship. Enjoy yourself when you get this chance to be up close and personal (it is contagious).
- When you are in human contact, keep any electronic devices far enough removed so that these devices do not interfere with the conversation. Even the slightest eye movement to see who is texting, e-mailing, etc. gives the other person the impression that someone else is more important to you.
- Find media-free time each week to counter your addiction to staying connected online. You will probably find out you like it.
- Stay vigilant in your efforts; technology is amazing, but it is also seductive.
When babies aren't physically touched, they develop severe emotional challenges. E-mail does not qualify as touching, even if your fingers are on your computer or mobile key pad.
Find out more about Debbie Robins, named one of the top executive coaches in the country, at www.debbierobins.com.
Find out more about Frank Wagner, a proud member of The Marshall Goldsmith Group, at www.aboutfrank.com.