Thinking of incorporating a “no phones in meetings” policy? Read this first.

I like Simon Sinek. A lot. But I have a concern with one of the things he says in this video, which recently went viral–specifically at 12:06:

“There should be no cell phones in conference rooms. None.”

This seems hard to argue with, especially as Sinek goes on to describe how looking at a screen instead of interacting with others in the same room inhibits relationship building. No argument there. However, his statement becomes problematic when it’s extended to infer that looking at a cell phone in a meeting is inherently wrong–a root-cause problem that must be excised in order to command attention.

The truth is, banning cell phones in meetings isn’t the answer because cell phones themselves aren’t the real problem. In fact, banning cell phones from meetings is just lazy.

Here’s the real issue, again accepting that we should all interact with each other more and technology less: many meetings suck. Sure, people sometimes “hide” behind their phones, but they’re not just hiding from people. Often, they’re turning their attention to tasks, information, or conversations that provide something that meetings often lack: relevance.
So before seeking to solve the problem by banning cell phones, it’s worth asking a few questions about your company’s meetings:

1.  Are you respectful of people’s time?  Do your meetings start on time, or do you let people wander in five or even ten minutes late?

Do you end meetings on time? It’s certainly true that the conversation will occasionally be so good that it’s worth going past the agreed-upon end time, but that should be rare.

Are you scheduling meetings for the right amount of time? Meeting organizers often schedule 60 minutes when they could have gotten by with 30 or even 15.

Finally, do you have an agenda that keeps you on topic and on time?

If you’re not doing these things consistently, you’re not respecting the attendees’ time–and if you don’t, why should they give you their attention?

2. Is the content of the meeting relevant to everyone involved?  Have you invited the right people, or are you just filling seats? Are a few people dominating the conversation and are others left out? Do you seek input from everyone in the room? If not, why were they invited–or why have a meeting at all? The most basic rule of communication is that if you want people to pay attention to you, make it about them. Otherwise, you’ll lose them–and even if you ban phones, they’ll still check out and doodle, daydream, or start drafting a resume.

3.  Are you making the content of the meeting entertaining and engaging? If you’re making people sit through presentations where the slides are read verbatim, you’ll lose them at the first bullet point. This has long been true, but the bar is set even higher today. The fact is, when we communicate today, whether in a group or one on one, we’re competing against everything. It’s convenient to knock people for going to Facebook or Instagram or viral videos featuring Simon Sinek instead of paying attention in meetings, but if you’re boring, can you really blame them? Moreover, when you don’t engage the audience, they’ll go to higher priorities, like texts from loved ones or work they’re not getting done as they sit in a pointless meeting.

I am all for more human interaction and less reliance on technology. But banning cell phones from meetings won’t solve the problem. As a solution, it’s simply another example of something else Sinek mentions in his video: an attempt at instant gratification. It seems like the right answer because it’s easy. But that’s exactly why it’s so lacking. If you truly want to improve engagement in your meetings, focus on the primary root cause: make your meetings better. It’s certainly a more difficult path, but it’s far more likely to ensure that your audience will really listen instead of just sitting there, phoneless, thinking about everything they’d rather be listening to.


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