I recently went to a very inspiring leadership workshop hosted by Qualia Learning Network with Tony Schwartz from the Energy Project. Amongst the gems of information that I am already using to work more effectively, Tony made the comment that one of the biggest challenges that leaders face in managing their energy is the pervasiveness of technology.
He shared a great quote from Linda Stone, formally of Apple and Microsoft, describing a state of ‘continuous partial attention’
For almost two decades, continuous partial attention has been a way of life to cope and keep up with responsibilities and relationships. We’ve stretched our attention bandwidth to upper limits. We think that if tech has a lot of bandwidth then we do, too. With continuous partial attention we keep the top level item in focus and scan the periphery in case something more important emerges.
Continuous partial attention is motivated by a desire not to miss opportunities. We want to ensure our place as a live node on the network, we feel alive when we’re connected. To be busy and to be connected is to be alive. We’ve been working to maximize opportunities and contacts in our life. So much social networking, so little time. Speed, agility, and connectivity at top of mind. Marketers humming that tune for two decades now. Now we’re over-stimulated, over-wound, unfulfilled.
Like most of us, I have experienced the negative impacts of technology and confess to many hours being spent in a state of continuous partial attention. That being said, I cannot see any reason why technology needs to have this negative impact on our effectiveness as leaders. Ultimately technology is just a tool, it is the decisions we make (or lack of decisions) that ultimately defines whether technology works effectively for us, or not.
There are countless models of leadership and lists of effective leadership behaviors. Rather than get bogged down in a debate abut effective leadership I found this (fairly) comprehensive list of leadership behaviours to see where technology is likely to have a positive or negative impact.
Leadership behaviours where technology has a positive impact
- Collaborating Across the Organization
- Keeping Things in Perspective (Humility & Gratitude)
- Evaluating Risk
- Managing Complexity & Ambiguity
- Managing & Evaluating Performance
- Hiring Great Talent
- Learning the Business
Leadership behaviours where technology is likely to have no impact
- Driving Innovation
- Demonstrating Passion for Your Work
- Influencing Others
- Resolving Conflict
- Coaching & Developing Talent
- Driving for Results
- Delegating & Empowering
- Motivating & Inspiring Others
- Building High Performance Teams
- Creating a Culture of Customer Focus
- Setting Strategy & Priorities
- Establishing a Vision & Mission
- Being a Role Model for Integrity & Ethics
- Demonstrating Optimism & Positive Energy
Leadership behaviours where technology is likely to have a negative impact
- Being a Champion for Work/Life Balance
- Managing Your Time
Although there is clearly a lack of scientific rigour behind my analysis, I would argue that the only two leadership behaviours that technology is likely to have a negative impact on is time management and work/life balance. This is far outweighed by the positive impact that technology can have on leadership (through improved communication, opportunities for learning and enlarged perspective). If we are being honest the negative impacts are also more to do with how we use technology rather than technology itself.
So as leaders what can we do to improve our technology usage?
- Start by turning off all your alerts across all your devices. These are almost always set to be on by default and they are a constant drain on our attention and subsequently our effectiveness. Schedule time to review your communications (email, social media etc) or do it when you have finished a task.
- Communicate better. How many emails do you get to clarify previous communications? Take the time to write your communications right the first time.
- Start seeing their technology as a tool. Designers want us to have an emotional connection to our devices but ultimately they are just tools, just like a hammer and screwdriver.
- Get some help. Given the amount of time that is spent using technology most of us are severely undertrained. Whether it be with established technologies such as email or emerging technologies such as social media and mobile computing, we can be much more effective and less prone to the negative impacts if we get some training.
Technology is not going away and we need to accept that the effective use of technology will increasingly be an integral part of effective leadership. By taking a more intentional approach to technology use we can continue to reap the benefits that it offers and maintain our focus and attention as leaders.