Pathological connectedness

Posted by on Sep 9, 2010 in Emotion & cognition | 0 comments

CIOs frequently invite me to give presentations to their management teams or to facilitate retreats. I’m always amazed by how many of the managers in those sessions feel compelled to answer their cell phones or monitor their “crack-berries” during those few short hours. I could tell you that this is the cost of competing in the blistering marketplace of the 24/7 economy, that it’s the inevitable result of globalization or that the participants in those meetings are just important people. But I don’t believe that pathological connectedness is caused by any of these things.

I suspect that managers’ rationalization for this sort of behavior falls into four categories:

Neediness. The staff needs constant access to the boss in order to remain at peak productivity. They need immediate decisions. The boss needs a constant flow of status information. Without access, work stops.

Responsiveness. If the boss doesn’t respond to the staff quickly enough, he will be viewed as aloof, uncaring or disengaged. Remaining in constant touch symbolizes the value that the boss places on the staff.

Connectedness. Supervisor and staff form an intimate community. If the boss disconnects from the collective, he will be lost.

Relationships. The boss is at the center of a network of relationships and must constantly monitor and manage the expectations of all the stakeholders. New technology has raised the expectations of the speed of communication, so he must respond to everyone immediately in order to maintain productive relationships.

While each of these has some validity, I suspect that they are more excuses than explanations. This sort of behavior is really a symptom of a deeper problem: connection addiction.

Dictionary.com offers one definition of addiction as “the condition of being habitually or compulsively occupied with or involved in something.” Here, connectivity is the pathological something.

This connection fixation can arise for a number of reasons:

Ego. What could be a better ego stroke than having a constant line of people waiting outside your electronic door? It’s very satisfying to be needed.

Mistrust of staff. Many managers fear that if they are out of touch, their staff will be either unable or unwilling to continue working. On one hand, they may assume that their people are incapable of working without constant supervision. On the other, they may assume that their people are inherently devious. Some may even believe both.

Sense of importance. That feeling of being the indispensable man is a great high. It’s great to be “in the loop,” constantly “in the know.”

Confusion about the real role of a manager. Too many managers have adopted the mentality of the preindustrial foreman. They think that the role of the manager in the age of knowledge work is the same as that of the overseer on the plantation: to stand watch over the workers and make sure that they’re productive.

OK, you might say, hyperconnectedness isn’t particularly useful, but where’s the harm?

This addiction has costs for everyone involved — manager, staff and organization.

For the manager, it leads to an unbalanced life. Everything takes on an unnatural sense of urgency, and relaxing can be difficult. The manager can also wind up constructing a personal identity that’s too tied up in a particular job. While business is important and fun, it’s too easy to lose a job and be left without a core sense of self.

For the staff, it creates a constant dependence on the presence of the manager. This kills their desire to take initiative. They become much more concerned with carrying out the boss’s orders than with meeting the goals of the organization.

Finally, the organization becomes fragile. If key players go missing, the productivity of dozens of people may suffer.

If you can’t disconnect the electronic bands of connectivity for a couple of weeks or even for a few hours, you need to rethink your management approach. Hyperconnectivity could be a symptom of an important problem. Great managers create organizations that are resilient enough to keep moving ahead, no matter who is out of touch.

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