The first time I heard the word “Tweet” I was perplexed. I found it to be an odd term especially when used as a verb–“I tweeted!” I would have never thought that term would become synonymous with mass communication for a new generation. Today, just a few years later, I try to Tweet regularly as part of our citizen engagement strategy for the City of Philadelphia. So does our Mayor and so do many of our outward facing departments as they work to connect with our citizens. When it comes to how we connect, things have clearly changed. I like how the Twitter platform has enhanced communication between different groups of people and leveled the playing field. I feel the same way about other modes of new media such as WordPress, Facebook, YouTube, Skype and LinkedIn (and there are many others). Along with a strong online Web presence, these platforms allow us to communicate across our City, across states, countries, industries and various communities—discussing events, sharing pictures and videos with one another like we were in the same room. Technology has accomplished something miraculous: instantaneously connecting individuals who are in some way disconnected.
This communication revolution, along with the precipitous growth of the smart phone, has allowed us to connect in ways never imagined just 10 years ago. But as these communication platforms connect us—24 hours a day through our mobile devices in real-time—we’re tweeting, texting, pinning, emailing, posting, discussing, debating, writing, retweeting, endorsing, friending, following, liking, viewing and commenting so much that often times, if we are not careful, the only thing we’re truly connecting with is the small screen in the palm of our hands.
This raises an important question for leaders and managers: Is it possible that we have become so “connected” that we’ve actually become disconnected? Are we relying too much on technology to the detriment of real contact? If so, that would be a serious problem that you might not become aware of until you feel the negative impact on your organization when it matters most.
GOVERNMENT BY BLACKBERRY?
This blog post is not a criticism of technology. Email and social media have been remarkably important for organizations and people who are disconnected geographically. These platforms have also made government more accessible, transparent and responsive in communicating with constituents. Everyday I receive positive feedback from citizens who enjoy engaging and personally seeing their government (and tax dollars) at work. That is a great thing. Technology is not the problem. The problem I’m talking about is the potential for a conference room full of people staring at their phones, not being in the moment; it’s a 15+ email exchange with someone in the office next door; it’s “collaborating” on a project without ever personally speaking. It’s the over reliance on technology to lead and manage on a daily basis that uses technology in a way that was not intended.
While communicating with technology can be critical when coming together is inconvenient or even impossible, I’ve realized over the past two years that, left unchecked, these methods can actually take away from productivity. What’s gained in the instantaneous delivery is lost in the time waiting for a response, the five back-and-forths to decide on a meeting, or the ten back-and-forths to make a decision because of incomplete information or the lack of clarity. Most of these things could be alleviated by a phone call or a quick conversation. This is especially true when the majority of those you are connecting with are in the same City, often across the street, often in the same building, often on the same floor. For these reasons, we need to be careful to avoid the possibility of doing what I call “Running Our Government by Blackberry!”
Over the past year, I have made a special effort to use technology differently. For example, whenever possible, technology should never be used for important decisions or important (even difficult) or complex conversations. You just can’t truly connect with your employees, inspire or share an aspirational vision in that manner. You can’t do important strategic planning, solve complex issues, have HR related conversations or make potentially controversial decisions over email. Whenever possible, technology should be used to update, report relatively routine information, schedule quick meetings or follow up after the real substantive conversation has already occurred. Even praise and positive conversations are better said in person. The old adage of coaching in private and praising in public is better in the real world, not the digital world.
DON’T SKYPE IT IN
This past week was a great illustration of the proper use of technology and the proper time to BE PRESENT. I had the honor of traveling to Boston to be a speaker at the annual International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Conference themed Revolutionary Leadership. My Co-speaker, Professor Catherine Howe (@curiousc) utilized Skype very effectively (from London) and presented an excellent presentation. Together, we even took questions from “virtual” conference attendees. That was an excellent use of technology.
Later during my Boston trip I did a site visit to the National offices of Year Up . Year Up is a great non-profit that is closing the opportunity gap for at-risk students. While I could have connected to Year Up through technology, the organization is launching in a few months in Philadelphia and I wanted to personally connect so I could see its potential for myself. No technology could have captured the passion of its dynamic founder Gerald Chertavian. You can’t see the competency and feel the excitement of the Year Up staff as they build a new partnership with Philadelphia. You can’t Skype that twinkle in the eye of student after student that just lets you feel — this program changes lives. That connection needed to be real. I could always tweet about it later but some things need to happen in person and in the moment.
While becoming overdependent on technology can chip away at efficiency, the true cost of overusing technology is the loss of the personal connection. The personal connection can be one of the most valuable aspects of an organization and is essential to good communication and working well with other people. Strong relationships are often what drive performance, passion and creativity.
The energetic real life back-and-forth, the (truly) instantaneous response time and creative banter can push innovative ideas forward. Personal connections also give leaders the small subtleties of approval or disapproval from direct reports. It allows you to read the room, read the audience. This is perhaps the best management use of people to people connections. As employees can be uncomfortable with publicly expressing verbal disapproval to a boss’s idea. Sometimes it is a leader’s job to decipher the looks in the room, the tiny “hmm’s” and “okay’s” to know whether approval is genuine and without reservation. That can be lost with technology.
We cannot connect like that through email. Shared “real” experiences, both good and bad, are what often build strong relationships. To truly talk to each other and connect we often need to be together, to speak face to face. We need to see each other—hear each other and actually connect to get things done.
If you take anything from this MGMT Moment, I hope you take the opportunity to delete that long email draft and pick-up the phone. Better yet, personally connect and be present. All meetings do not need to be long scheduled hour long sessions with detailed agendas. They can be quick and productive and real. I hope you invite someone to your office for 10 minutes to discuss a new idea. I hope you take advantage of working side-by-side great people who have great ideas rather than staring at a smart phone and texting from across the table. Yes, let’s make outstanding and creative use of all technology to improve the lives of our citizens. But every now and then, let’s put down that device and look each other in the eye. The more we actually connect, the more we can accomplish. As we move forward together, let’s make sure we disconnect to truly connect.
Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.