Texts, transactions and relationships

Mar 07 2011 by Bob Selden Print This Article

Today, many people text more often than they talk on the phone. For example in the US, the Pew Research Centre suggests that almost nine out of 10 of all teen phone communications are text messages. This research also showed that two thirds of teen texters say they are more likely to text their friends than talk to them by phone.

Staying with the US, in the wider population it has been reported that in 2010 there were 2.3 billion text messages sent each day. On the latest figures available (CellSigns 2008) on average, people sent 3 text messages versus 2 phone calls. No doubt those figures have increased and the gap has widened today. It's also probable that this trend is worldwide.

So what's this got to do with management?

At its heart, good management is about communication. And the technology revolution has certainly increased the speed, flow and openness of communication. "Getting a message through to the troops" is now very easy for management. Rather than hold meetings and have the message relayed (generally downwards) throughout the organization, managers can now send a text. The communication becomes instant.

"Oh what joy", the communication professionals might say.

That's the upside. But there are downsides, not the least of which is the technology grapevine, which I've termed the "technovine". Rumours (either founded or unfounded) spread like wildfire on the technovine. These can be just as effective at mobilizing or de-mobilizing the troops as any message from management.

Texts also provide the opportunity for employees to vent – either about management, particular managers, or their colleagues. Whereas once, such venting was done at the water cooler or perhaps after work at the pub, it's now done instantly and in the heat of the moment via text. Such texting can produce dire consequences - many people have been fired for this public venting.

But there could be an even greater threat to good management, and quite possibly the health of organizational life and indeed organizations, in the future.

In a new book "Alone Together", author Sherry Turkle chronicles the rise and impact of communication technology. Turkle, a professor at MIT, has previously written two books on the subject (the first in 1984) where she lauded the benefits of the communication technology revolution. Today's writings warn of a growing and worrying trend: the lack of the personal touch (feelings) in the way people now interact.

In paraphrasing from Turkle's book, there are at least two possible consequences and subsequent challenges for managers, of instant text messaging (be it texting, tweeting, e-mailing or posting on sites such as Facebook).

The first is a sense of ill-defined self-identity. For instance, when interviewing a subject called Brad, Turkle reports:

"Brad says, only half-jokingly, that he worries about getting 'confused' between what he 'composes' for his online life and who he 'really' is. Not yet confirmed in his identity, it makes him anxious to post things about himself that he doesn't really know are true. It burdens him that the things he says online affect how people treat him in the real. People already relate to him based on things he has said on Facebook. Brad struggles to be more 'himself' there, but this is hard. He says that even when he tries to be 'honest' on Facebook, he cannot resist the temptation to use the site 'to make the right impression.' "

How do managers know who the real Brad is? And how do his colleagues relate to him face-to-face in the workplace (assuming of course they are in the same locale!)?

To try and overcome this, some organizations are now asking all employee candidates to log onto Facebook during the recruitment interview to assess and compare the real Brad with the online Brad.

The second and perhaps more worrying consequence is the declining degree of social skills younger people now display. As Turkle points out, with texting and social networking, one can now "communicate when we wish and disengage at will."

Turkle cites numerous examples of teenagers, who say that real phone conversations (never mind face-to-face interactions) are "too prying", "too long" and "too difficult". As Turkle points out "Many young people prefer to deal with strong feelings from the safe haven of the Net. It gives them an alternative to processing emotions in real time."

Turkle's observations regarding the impact of advanced communication technology, mirror a similar trend I've observed in business generally – a move toward short-term transactions versus long-term relationships.

This became particularly obvious during the GFC and subsequent investigations of the financial sector in particular, and the wider business community in general. Today it seems as if quick, short transactions have become the norm rather than long term relationships. Often such transactions are based on "What's in it for me?" (The rise and rise of the "I" society) rather than what can we both best get from this relationship, now and into the future?

The challenge for management is "How do we manage the Twitter generation?" And more importantly, how do members of the Twitter generation become effective, sensitive and caring managers (Twitter was founded in 2006, so these people are now starting to move into management and will certainly be the senior managers of the future). Will everyone be managed as androids?

The annoyance of many current (perhaps older) managers with their people texting during meetings may seem inconsequential if the looming threat of "emotionless" communication continues.

The answers?

The technology solution of using emoticons to emphasise feelings in technology communications, has not worked. For example, often when they have been used to lighten a heavy message, the impact has been the opposite – a hardening of the feelings of the recipient.

And as managers, we're not going to stop or even slow the use of texting to communicate. In fact when the Twitter generation hits the workplace and start to enter the management ranks themselves, our role will become educators - showing people how to put feeling back into communication and evaluate its effectiveness.

There are three solutions that may help this education process. These solutions are not easy fixes – they may be seen as quite challenging for many managers.

The first is to get people together face-to-face more often. This can be one-on-one, in meetings or as a last resort via video web hook-up – most importantly without the use of personal phones, Blackberries etc., to text one another (or others outside the meeting).

Working against this solution is an unfortunate new trend. In an attempt to limit time spent on social internet networking, some companies are now introducing internal social networks to encourage employees to talk with one another via technology.

The second solution is to get people talking about their personal communication, how effective it is and how it can be improved. One really good way of doing this is to spend time (as a team or group) evaluating the effectiveness of each meeting at the end of the meeting.

So for example, the last 10-15 minutes of say monthly meetings, is spent evaluating and talking about how effective the communication within the meeting (just completed) has been. The discussion must revolve around direction and leadership, understanding (of one another), participation, disagreement and conflict, evaluating progress, decisions and commitment. It must not discuss the content or decisions of the meeting, except to use as examples of communication.

The third solution may be even more challenging. It is to reserve one day a week where all communication must be personal – either face-to-face or by phone. There have been numerous reports of companies doing this (e.g. email-free Fridays) with a resultant improvement in areas such as personal communication, relationships with colleagues and surprisingly, customer service. Examples include Intel, US Cellular, PBD and Deloittes.

It's only when we tackle this communication challenge face-to-face that we are perhaps going to see feelings in communication being recognized as important. Most importantly, encouraging people to actually talk to one another, may ultimately ensure future managers do become effective leaders.

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden, is an author, management consultant and coach based in New Zealand and working internationally. Much of his time currently is spent working with family businesses. He's the author of the best-selling What To Do When You Become The Boss. His new book, What To Do When Leadership Is Needed, was released in July 2022.