Incompetence at the speed of light

Nov 08 2006 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Genghis Khan managed to rule over half the known world without once having a conference call or conducting a webinar. He did it all with a system of flags and horsemen. So why is it that most companies today, with more ways to communicate then ever, do such a lousy job?

It's not just that the budget for flags and horses in most companies has been slashed mercilessly - although Lord knows I can't remember the last time I got away with submitting a horse rental, even with proper receipts. No, it's because even though we have more and better tools than ever, we haven't given enough thought to how we use them.

The problem, as one IT person explained to me in a moment of Red Bull-fueled honesty, is usually not with the technology per se, but sits between the keyboard and the chair.

When these tools started to become available the feeling was, I believe, that "we hire people who are smart and capable and would instinctively know how to make the best use of these new tools".

But as you look at yet another 27 "cc":ed messages you have no discernible interest in, I ask this question: how's that workin' for you?

I think the problem is biological. Really. Information travels through the Internet, or the Ether or whatever it is, at just under the speed of light. Our brains don't work nearly that fast. It's not physically possible.

Back in 1954 when the 4 minute mile was considered an impossible barrier, there was the feeling that the human body would never be able to withstand the pressures of that kind of speed, and that Roger Bannister was in grave danger of actually bursting into flame.

We have reached a similar kind of barrier with electronic communication. The human brain (never mind our carpal-tunneled typing fingers) is incapable of working faster than an email shoots through the wire.

I think the virtual version of the four minute mile is that our brain cannot move faster than the messages we send, which means the notion that you probably shouldn't have said something will occur to you approximately 17 milliseconds after you hit SEND.

The first person who can actually stop themselves from sending something stupid, insulting or incriminating will be hailed as a hero and Messiah, (then will be promptly gunned down, if history is any guide).

Even if we do manage to control the time / space / send button continuum, there is still basic human nature to contend with. Dr Alice Stuhlmacher at DePaul University in Chicago has done a meta-analysis of people who work and negotiate virtually, rather than face to face. She has discovered a couple of interesting things:

1) People who negotiate face-to-face tend to get better results and stronger outcomes than people who negotiate virtually. Looking into someone's eyes (and having them look into yours) tends to make you a little more generous and willing to reach truly win-win solutions

2) People who only negotiate virtually tend to engage in negative behaviors like bullying, name-calling and outright lying more often. Why not? After all you're never going to actually meet this person and have to look them in the eye. For all they know you could be six feet tall and made of Kevlar instead of the mouse you really are. AND WHY GIVE YOU A CAPS LOCK BUTTON IF YOU'RE NOT SUPPOSED TO USE IT TO MAKE A POINT?

If we would only take a couple of key points into account, we would be able to make better use of communication technology. They might even become truly productive!

  • The fact that you CAN send a response within seconds, doesn't mean you SHOULD
  • If you insist that people be on call and available 24/7 you're going to get grumpy impolite replies. No polite, well-thought-out memo was ever crafted at 2 in the morning from an airport lounge on a Blackberry with a cracked screen
  • The more impersonal the medium, the more important it is that we're conscious of the little pieces of humanity we can impose on it, and those don't happen spontaneously
  • Nothing- especially technology- created by man has ever NOT been used for evil as well as good. Even the Beanie Baby can constitute a choking hazard if you hold the other person at just the right angle and shove hard enough…. Or so I've heard

Without explicit guidelines, policies, training and continual coaching on the use of these tools, we'll get exactly the kind of behavior we've always gotten, only faster and with no margin for error.

History tells us Genghis Khan was ruthless and bloodthirsty. Imagine what carnage he would have committed if one of his messengers sent him a message by flag and put a great big :-) on it.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He's passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today's virtual communication technology. His books include The Long-Distance Team - Designing Your Team for Everyone's Success. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.

Older Comments

And remember, business contacts with whom you have had a few face-to-face conversations that they took into personal territory first or second time you meet, should be regarded as not having the ability to discern between forwarding anything you send them to the whole company (or hiring manager) and just reading and deleting. Trust later in writing than face-to-face. Or just keep it business and there never will be a smoking gun.

Allan Houston