Smart phones, smart leadership?
- By Florence Olsen
- May 16, 2008
Many federal managers have discovered that the BlackBerry and other smart phones are more than devices for checking e-mail while on the road. They are also powerful management tools that are transforming leadership styles — and creating the potential for various management blunders.
The BlackBerry creates new expectations, which leaders must manage, and it requires a new etiquette, which is still evolving. There’s more to the BlackBerry than meets the eye. Some government leaders describe a BlackBerry-induced state of mind unlike anything they experienced in pre-BlackBerry days when they had to be at their desk to take a phone call or in their office to read e-mail messages.
Many people see the BlackBerry as a transformative technology that has enabled leaders and organizations to optimize their use of time. But some experts say the BlackBerry also has transformed leadership in a negative way.
“The problem with BlackBerrys and the whole plugged-in culture is the lack of reflection, the lack of downtime, the lack of quiet time, the lack of unplugged time,” said John Engels, president of Leadership Coaching.
The problem Engels sees is one that few federal executives recognize. It’s the BlackBerry’s ability to turn downtime into professionally productive time that makes it so appealing to many information technology executives.
“It’s perfect for use in downtime,” said Jacquelyn Patillo, deputy chief information officer at the Transportation Department. “If you’re in the doctor’s office, on a train or during times when you might just sit and gaze off into never land, you can use the BlackBerry to get some work done, and I think that’s a good use of it.”
The ability of the BlackBerry to convert downtime into work time keeps expanding as Research in Motion, which makes the popular device, adds new capabilities. “One of the great features now is you can connect your laptop PC to the BlackBerry and have Internet access through the BlackBerry,” said Marwan Jamal, professor of systems management at National Defense University.
In addition to their versatility as wireless modems, BlackBerrys can double as Global Positioning System devices to help executives who travel frequently find their way from point A to point B.
Meanwhile, a few management experts think people don’t really know how BlackBerrys have transformed leadership in government and industry.
“We pump out BlackBerrys, we give them to executives, but have we stepped back and made a strategic decision about what it means? I don’t think we have,” said Casey Wilson, leadership practice leader at Management Concepts. “It’s hard to see the picture when you’re standing in the frame. I think the same thing is somewhat true of technology.”
BlackBerrys have nevertheless changed public management in ways experts can observe. The devices have changed how managers delegate authority and altered their ideas about supervising employees, said Jorge Ponce, director of policy and evaluation at the Commerce Department’s Office of Civil Rights and co-chairman of the Council of Federal Equal Employment Opportunity and Civil Rights Executives.
Executives still delegate authority when they leave town on vacation, but delegating is not the same when staff members know they can reach their boss by BlackBerry for a second opinion, Ponce said.
The BlackBerry has also changed the way managers perceive supervision. “Whereas managers were used to having access to employees only when they were in the office or the same geographic location,” Ponce said, “the BlackBerry has transformed that and given management access across geographic boundaries and time zones.”A higher standard
For many employees, a government- issued BlackBerry brings with it the expectation that they will keep the device turned on at all times so they can be reached any time they might be needed. “For managers, supervisors and executives, it’s a higher standard, in which case 24/7 is not unreasonable,” Ponce said.
The BlackBerry and devices similar to it, such as the Palm Treo and Windows Mobile smart phones, have changed how managers manage, said Mary McCully, chairman of the Information Strategies Department at National Defense University. For example, the BlackBerry has altered the meaning of core work hours, which the Office of Personnel Management defines as 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., she said.
Such devices have also lessened the importance of line of sight, a traditional management concept that describes the ability of managers to see that employees are working, and they have increased the feasibility of telework. “We promote telework here, and the BlackBerry is a necessary tool for us,” McCully said. “It really is a backbone for the telework program.”
The BlackBerry has altered management in other ways, she said. It has had an effect on the size and composition of organizations. Some can operate with fewer staff members specializing in the same areas of expertise because they are always within reach of the BlackBerry. “I don’t have the luxury of having five people doing the same thing,” McCully said.
However, several federal executives say the most profound way in which the BlackBerry has changed leaders and leadership has been by altering expectations about time. Leaders and their staff members no longer expect to wait 24 hours for someone to return a phone call or miss a deadline because a person is on vacation.
“It has heightened the expectation that we will be available at all hours,” said Casey Coleman, CIO at the General Services Administration. “It also has created an expectation that responses will be quickly forthcoming.”
Those expectations are often in conflict with the value many government leaders place on work/life balance, Patillo said. “We all talk about this life-balancing thing. We want to make sure that our employees have some sort of work/life balance, and then I think we tend to forget because the BlackBerry is here.”
Related to the work/life balance question is the way the BlackBerry has eroded leaders’ ability to establish priorities, said Jeffrey Ward, executive coach at Northward Leadership. “There’s an unwritten rule that if you don’t answer [the BlackBerry] within a few minutes, it means you don’t care. Your eye is not on the ball. The life partners of executives really resent this.”BlackBerry etiquette
To tame the sometimes unwanted expectations created by the BlackBerry, many CIOs and executive coaches have created their own rules of etiquette.
For example, because employees are sensitive to authority, leaders should avoid sending BlackBerry messages expressing thoughts that others might perceive as directives requiring them to act, Patillo said.
“If you’re using a BlackBerry [to communicate], you have to be very careful how you use it,” Patillo said, because people often misinterpret or overreact to BlackBerry messages, especially those from leaders with authority in their organizations. “People in positions of authority can never speak in a whisper,” she said.
Patillo tries to avoid confusion by never using her BlackBerry to issue a directive. Instead, she uses the device to request a face-to-face meeting with someone to whom she wants to assign a task. “I may start off with a couple of sentences and typically end it with, ‘Let’s talk,’” she said.
Patillo, who works late, often sends BlackBerry text messages between 7:00 and 8:00 p m. But she has told her staff members that she doesn’t expect them to respond until the next day. It’s another one of her rules of BlackBerry etiquette.
Patillo expresses her strongest feelings about BlackBerry use in her almost universal rule against checking or responding to it during a meeting or conversation. “Perhaps my Southern culture is coming through here because I see it as almost rude,” she said. “I won’t do it.”
Ward refers to people who constantly check their BlackBerrys as being absently present, a bad habit some managers develop. “The No. 1 rule of thumb I coach executives [about] BlackBerry use is to be aware of the impact of using that device at all times,” he said. “The more present you can be at any given time, the more successful you’re going to be as a leader.”
McCully’s pet peeve is managers who attend professional conferences and violate one of her rules of BlackBerry etiquette. “Instead of networking during breaks, everybody’s on the BlackBerry in their own little world,” she said.Effective communication
Rules of etiquette also help make the BlackBerry an effective communications tool. Given the bare-bones nature of BlackBerry messages, they are easy to misinterpret.
Some managers, for example, always type ACTION ITEM in capital letters at the top of important messages. Without such norms, junior employees often misinterpret the urgency of BlackBerry messages.
“He or she might think everything from the big boss is urgent,” Ward said. “It’s really about understanding the rules of engagement.”
Wilson has devised his own rule for thumb-typing on a BlackBerry. If he has to spend more than two minutes typing a BlackBerry message with his thumbs, he makes a phone call instead. “If your message isn’t simple, you should find a different way to communicate.”
Coleman’s first rule is get to the point quickly. “We have a joke that if you have to scroll down more than three times to get to the heart of the message, someone hasn’t written it very well.” Another rule is to convey a cordial tone in messages. “This is something our administrator [Lurita Doan, who resigned in April] is big on, and I’m big on this, too.”
Coleman’s etiquette for effective BlackBerry communication also typically includes a thank you. “I will often thank the person for giving me a heads-up or thank them for the communication,” she said. “Whether their tone has been cordial or not, I try to extend a hand through cyberspace.”
One of the factors that makes the BlackBerry so popular with executives — its mobility — creates a variety of unintended consequences, including anxiety, several management experts said.
In some instances, the consequence is merely the odd recognition that when you are talking or texting on your BlackBerry, nobody actually knows where you are, McCully said. “By virtue of the BlackBerry, the office becomes where I am.”
Related to that sensation is the out-of-body experience McCully said she has when she checks her BlackBerry while she is away on a trip. “It’s like I’m standing on the outside watching everything happen.”
Engels has a harsher assessment of the BlackBerry’s effect on leaders and organizations. He questions the basic notion of the around-the-clock availability that the BlackBerry makes possible. “How much of BlackBerry use is reasonable and in the best interests of the organization, and how much is driven by anxiety?” he asked.
He said he thinks he knows the answer. “Not only is it not possible to be totally available, it’s probably not desirable from a well-being and health standpoint,” he said. &ldq o;I’ve been talking to neuroscientists about this. There’s some question about whether it’s even good for the brain to be constantly on.”
That anxiety might well be the price we pay for greater productivity, like the carnage on the road that people accept as a consequence of high-speed highway driving, said Tom Schulte, chief executive officer of Recalibrate Professional Development, an executive coaching firm. It’s probably impossible to avoid having mixed feelings about the BlackBerry, he added.
“I absolutely enjoy, on the positive side, when I can get in touch with someone, and they’re sitting in an airport, and they can give me a quick reply,” Schulte said. “The downside is when that crazy person who is trying to lead me is so focused on this little device and not what I’m trying to say. That’s the downside.”