Five Ways for Leaders to Disconnect and Lead Better


My daughter is 12. Last Christmas she got her first laptop, and last Sunday she got her first cell phone. These are perhaps the first two tools new employees receive after getting their employee handbook.  These tools are incredibly valuable, and have been (along with other technologies) responsible for huge gains in productivity over the last ten years.

And they cause as many problems as they solve.

My daughter spends time in the evening watching television with a laptop in her lap, and now, her phone nearby, just in case she needs to send a text. Perhaps this picture looks familiar to you.

Perhaps the picture is you.

It isn’t just happening at home. When was the last time you went to a meeting and found people focused entirely on the topic at hand – with no one ever holding or using their phone to check their email? In the leadership workshops I lead, I challenge people to put their phones down between the breaks. And while these breaks are just 1 hour apart, many people can’t keep the phone in their purse or on the table; they seem compelled to take a quick peek, checking their texts and emails.

Just in case you are thinking that I am this older guy, not interested in technology, let me prove otherwise. I have a smart phone that I love, use twitter regularly, maintain a relatively active Facebook presence, send and receive more emails than I can count, and use text messaging, too. I love technology, and I appreciate the ways that technology can improve and extend our communication options. These technologies and more like them (IM and Foursquare come immediately to mind) can aid our productivity, especially when we work away from the office or have a virtual team.

And, like in many other areas of life, too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily so good.

What problems does technology cause for all of us as professionals and especially for us as leaders?

It starts with our assumptions. Because we have a phone, a laptop and perhaps a tablet computer, it is assumed that we are always connected, always ready to talk, answer a question or make a decision. And the most dangerous assumption is that we need to be constantly connected, that if we aren’t something terrible will happen.

Let me be clear.

As leaders do we need to be accessible and available to provide advice, wise counsel and coaching? Of course.

Do we need be flexible in the ways and times we are available, and be open to different communication mediums to accommodate the situation and the other person? For sure.

Does that mean we can never silence our phone or that we can’t go a couple of hours away from email? Not at all.

I realize that there are some jobs where you’d better be available. Being an inbound Customer Service Rep, a police officer or Fire Chief come to mind. If your job truly requires you to be available and on-call 24/7 perhaps not every bit of this article applies to you (but check your assumptions – I believe that is very small percentage of those who will read these words). After all when was the last time you really had to put out a fire?

Have you ever wished you could have some unconnected time to think, to coach, to focus and perhaps get some important work done? Have you ever (or do you always) feel compelled to be connected or have a hard time un-tethering from your electronic devices?

I believe you will become a more effective, productive and valued leader when you re-evaluate your relationship to your beloved electronic devices. How can you do that? How can you, as I promise in the title of this article, disconnect and lead better?

Five Ways to Disconnect

Set expectations and boundaries. This is the big one and it cuts straight to the heart of the assumptions above.  If you are going to unplug and disconnect, be it for 45 minutes (sometimes baby steps are needed), four hours or four days, people need to know that.

If you have been wired 24/7 and you suddenly disconnect without talking to people about expectations, you will understandably create chaos and confusion. Let people know when you will be accessible, and the timeline they can expect to hear back from you.

Ever listened to a voice mail message and heard someone say when you can expect to hear back from them? That is the idea! It may take time for you and others to adjust, but would you rather adjust or watch your phone become permanently affixed to your hand?

Manage your interrupt-ability. Have you ever gone into someone’s office and had them turn off their phone, or put the ringer on mute?  Did you feel like your conversation was important to them? That is the point of managing interrupt-ability. You will find what is appropriate for you and when (see expectations above) It could mean turning off the email notification on your computer, putting your phone in silent mode, or any number of other things. Figure yours out and do them.

Schedule time to reply to emails.  Have you ever been travelling for the day and then looked at your email after several hours? If you have, you likely found three things: there was a lot of it, few if any messages required fast attention, and responding in batches took less time.  Let’s be clear. When you are constantly replying to email, you are training people (setting unspoken expectations) that you are always answering emails!  If you choose to set times aside during the day (or even during the hour, if you must) you will be more productive AND you will be taming the expectations that you are “always on.”

Set sacred off-line times. Do you really have to be on the phone in the public restroom? Is your email really the last thing you need to check before bed and the first thing in the morning? If your answer to any of these is “yes” I’d say get a life and get over yourself. The most important, busiest people in the world aren’t doing that, and you don’t need to either.

Change the medium. Pick up the phone. Walk to someone’s office.  All of our technologies are about communication. Not all of them are equally effective in every situation. Stem the email flow with a quick call.  Send a text instead of a call that will become a five minute conversation. Go synchronous when needed, and take it off line when possible.

These ways will certainly improve your productivity – allowing you more focused time for the task at hand.  But if you think of these as only time management suggestions you will miss an important part of my point. They will also allow you to be a more effective leader when used in a balanced way– showing your trust by engaging and encouraging people to operate without your input at a moment’s notice, every time.

If you are thinking you can’t change the culture in your organization in regards to these technologies, I urge you to reconsider. If things are aren’t working perfectly, someone must raise the question, change the conversation and adjust the behaviors.

If you agree with even a small part of what I’ve suggested, tell people about your new decisions. Try one or more of the suggestions above. That’s what leaders do – work to make things better.

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  1. says

    Great post Kevin, recalls a conversation with a Fortune 500 exec a couple years ago. Instant Messaging was the big thing and for some reason he could not see shutting it off or the value of doing so, yet he talked about never having time to plan or think.

    Having IM, Cell, Email coming at you 24/7 is like a line of people at your door wanting to ask a question or have 2 minutes of your time. The same goes for the team, if the boss is doing it, then so are they. Now when does one actually get the work done?

  2. says

    Your observations about being too connected are so right. I have o turn off my phone and close my computer when I want to concentrate. These devices are great but they get in the way of concentrating and thinking.

  3. says

    Really Great post..

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  4. says

    Great article.

    I sometimes think that technology has helped create a form of institutionalized ADD. As we delegate our inbox the task of remembering important things, we become conditioned to constantly look to see what we’ve either missed or forgotten.

    I am astounded by my creativity when I shut the computer off and take my old fashioned notebook away to review and capture my thoughts. Perhaps it is just how my brain was wired growing up in a period before we were all wired, but taking a break, capturing your thoughts, reviewing your past ideas, and charting your future are so important.

    Take a bit of time away from the ‘to do’ list and make some real progress.

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