The cell phone culture appears to be growing as a problem in conducting business.I recently had dinner with a senior executive at a prominent marketing company. I asked him “what is the biggest management problem you face”? His response was most interesting. “My biggest challenge is dealing with the cell phone culture, getting people to put away their cell phone or their laptop and pay attention in a meeting.” He expanded on the topic adding that people constantly check messages, texts and look up information during a meeting and that they miss the essence of the meeting, discourage the speaker who notices their behavior and miss important and relevant facts. As a result meetings get prolonged,egos get bruised and mistakes occur.

A few years ago at a meeting in Miami with a senior representative from Google I witnessed an interesting moment. The Google representative looked at the 30 or so people in the room and noticed that at least 25 had brought personal computers to the meeting and all were open. The attendees were splitting their attention between their computer and the speaker. The speaker asked them to close their computers and pay attention to her. She noted it might appear to be an unusual request from a person representing Google but she stated that her experiences taught her that people who think they can multi-task are wrong. They can’t. People who use cell phones and / or laptops in meetings diminish their ability to perform at a high level.

Years ago I gave up trying to determine people’s motives. I found it a huge waste of time. I tried to discipline myself to simply deal with the facts. My time was better spent dealing with what I could see and what I knew. Thus I won’t try to explain why people spend so much time with cell phones and computers when they are in meeting situations whether the meeting is one on one or involving a conference room full of people. What I have learned is that multi-tasking does not work. I know people who would argue vehemently with me yet these same people have made egregious errors in meetings I have attended. On one occasion a very senior client made a serious complaint about the work we had presented. The senior account person for that client was busy on his cell phone texting a summary of the meeting to date to the creative director and missed the tone and substance of the client’s comments. He made a remark intended to be funny unaware the meeting had taken a dramatic turn. Several of us had to work hard to recover from that gaffe. I have been at meetings where people multi-tasking have left the room with the incorrect outcome of the meeting, believing work was approved when it was not and believing work was killed when it was approved.

The stakes are too high in most meetings to hope and trust that someone is not multi-tasking and paying attention. Managers have to take a position and not allow cell phones and laptops to be used in meetings where the participants are expected to be fully participating. I’ve addressed this issue in part in four different blogs during the past year. I’ve known it was a problem but it surprised me when the other night the senior executive told me it was the number one problem. That means it has gone in the wrong direction the past few years and will likely get worse until it is properly addressed. The new cell phone culture has enormous potential for good but like all things it has to be managed by good managers.