Sunday, May 20, 2007

So, First, I Think This Guy Gets an "F"...

This one's wrong in so many ways. Picture this, if you will: Business law course. Taught by a judge. Student in front row. Fiddling with cellphone. Cell phone continues to ring. Student lets phone ring. And ring. And ring. Professor-Your Honor asks student to put a lid on it. Student has other plans. Professor-Your Honor confiscates phone. Class ends. Student wants phone. Professor-Your Honor says he can pick it up from the dean.

Student calls the cops and accuses Professor-Your Honor of theft.

OK, so the professor forks over the phone after being grilled by the local constables. About a half-hour later, the student emails the professor to apologize, claiming that he had urgent family matters he was attending to.

Now, people in the discussion forum on the article are spending their time on whether the judge had the legal right to remove the cellphone. Their discussion sounds kind of daft to me. It doesn't have to be against the law to be rude, self-centered and disruptive. My rights end when they infringe on those of someone else's. Besides, the professor had the right to eject the student, cellphone and all, from the classroom and dock the fellow points for his absence. Knowing my cellphone phone was apt to ring, not putting it on "silent" and sitting in the front row...all the while not telling my prof that I was expecting an urgent set of calls is just, well, arrogant and dumb.

Think about it: we do this kind of dumb stuff all the time. Oblivious of the fact that our cellphone habits are disruptive to others, we just let that little bugger ring. Our calls are important, don't you know. I've seen people mumbling into their cellphones at movies, in church, in interviews (yup, I was the interviewer) and in meetings with employees, customers, new vendors. One client, sure that this call was critical, tried to answer a cellphone call...while she was with her granddaughter...on a roller Disney World. She just couldn't figure out why she didn't have a life.

They operate with nary a clue that (1) they're being rude, (2) that there are others in the room trying to pay attention to the goings-on (or to them) or (3) that their attention is needed elsewhere.

Aside from whether we have the legal right to use our cellphones when we want (we may), we certainly need to be concerned about our reputations--how we're viewed. And how we're viewed comes, largely from how we leave people feeling. People thrive on feeling like they're important. Splitting our attention, while we firmly believe (despite all evidence from brain science) that we can pull it off, is a less-than-optimal way to operate. In multi-tasking, we don't give any task 100%. With each additional task, our overall task effectiveness drops further and further towards the "negligible" category. I've never felt good with a provider who says they're giving me 100% when it's clear that this isn't the case.

Clearly, if the student had a family emergency (and given my recent history, I'm not one to talk about being emergency-free), he could have still exercised better communication skills. If you're expecting an important call, center stage isn't the place to plop yourself. We've seen people take a call from smack-dab in the middle of the action in a seminar and talk and chat (loudly) out the door while others wait for them to get-gone or hush up.

Telling a customer, vendor, supplier, prospect, referral resource or employee that you're expecting an important, brief, unavoidable call (and that it's the only one you'll take during your meeting), is a sign to them that they're important and that you'll use your time well.

Better still: Don't interrupt your work with another because you're emergency-driven. You may squeeze in that call, while foregoing ever being able to call on that person again.

(Illustration credit: Zach Riggin)