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Distracted Managers Hurt Employees — and the Bottom Line

Cornerstone Editors

Office distractions are hardly new, but they’re more ubiquitous in this age of information and technology overload. Between checking Facebook, sending a text and overhearing conversations in an open office, sometimes it’s a wonder employees accomplish any work at all. And bosses are no exception. When they’re flitting between screens and tasks, they neglect employees and big-picture business goals.

Social media distractions alone cost American businesses $650 billion annually in lost productivity and employee stress, according to research from Learn Stuff. Factor in email—the average CEO receives 200 to 300 emails per day—and top-level executives are swimming in a sea of distractions that they can’t afford to pursue.

"Senior executives so badly need uninterrupted time to synthesize information from many different sources, reflect on its implications for the organization, apply judgment, make trade-offs, and arrive at good decisions," McKinsey’s Derek Dean and Caroline Webb write.

The focus problem

Devices are wired to grab our attention and keep it, Claire Steiner-Adair, a clinical and consulting psychologist, tells NPR. "When you are plugged into your screen, the part of your brain that lights up is the to-do list," she says. "Everything feels urgent; everything feels a little exciting. We get a little dopamine hit when we accomplish another email, check this, check that."

And while checking off tasks in rapid succession might give leaders a surge of satisfaction, it detracts from the deep focus that’s crucial for strategically guiding a business and its employees. "The best way to understand your competition, learn from your employees, chart a long-term strategy, or innovate is to have the mental discipline to home in on what really matters to your business," says Brian Dumaine, a freelance writer for Inc., citing research from Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. "Only by intensely concentrating can you link new ideas and facts ... Juggling digital tasks certainly doesn't help with that process."

The constant use of e-mail and other social media, a phenomenon researchers call "unchecked infomania," led to a temporary 10-point drop in the IQ of participants in a study at King’s College Institute of Psychiatry in London. That reduction is twice as much as the effects shown in people who smoke marijuana.

When managers are distracted, the effects trickle down to other employees. "When your Terrible Office Tyrant (TOT), a.k.a. bad or childish boss, has the attention span of a fly, you endure unnecessary stress, and decreased productivity — not helping you, your boss, or the company," Lynn Taylor writes in Psychology Today.

The focus movement

While it seems like distractions will only be more common as new technologies and information channels proliferate, some leaders are pushing their companies to regain focus. At Google, more than 1,500 employees have taken the company’s multi-hour "Search Inside Yourself" course. Employees spend their first day of class practicing better focus. In another part of the curriculum, employees listen to a colleague speak for three minutes and repeat what the speaker said. SAP adopted Google’s program, which it calls "attention training."

EBay maintains a no-device policy during some team meetings, according to the Wall Street Journal. And at Intel, managers allow employees to block out four hours of "think time," during which they’re not expected to respond to emails or attend meetings.

As infomania continues to afflict employees at all levels, managers have the opportunity to set a good example and promote focus among their peers. How do you and your colleagues manage distractions at work? I can tell you for certain that my manager has never been distracted at work.

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Employment law is complicated and can have big repercussions for your company if employees fail to adhere to it — either out of ignorance or neglect. A talent contractor for Comcast was just forced to pay $7.5 million to settle a lawsuit over unpaid overtime — a violation of employment law. While you can't expect everyone at your company to be experts in the law (that's why you should have an attorney on retainer), your managers should be trained on the basics. Otherwise, you make your company susceptible to lawsuits.

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