Study: Smartphone-staring bosses can kill employee engagement

Leaders might be tweeting and texting their way to mistrust, low morale and poor retention.

Staring at your phone during a face-to-face conversation is rude and annoying, but it could carry an even more significant cost in the workplace.

According to a new study from Baylor University, “boss phubbing”—a term presumably contracting “phone snubbing” and describing bosses’ gazing at their phones while workers are speaking—severely diminishes trust and hampers employee engagement.

Baylor researchers surveyed 413 supervisors and workers to get a sense of how harmful this trend is.

The study found:

  • Seventy-six percent of those surveyed showed a lack of trust in a supervisor who had “phubbed” them.
  • Seventy-five percent showed decreases in psychological meaningfulness, psychological availability and psychological safety.
  • The lack of trust and decreases in those key areas led to a 5 percent decrease in employee engagement.

Meredith Adams, assistant professor of marketing at Baylor, said:

Employees who experience boss phubbing and have lower levels of trust for their supervisor are less likely to feel that their work is valuable or conducive to their own professional growth, and employees who work under the supervision of an untrusted, phubbing supervisor tend to have lower confidence in their own ability to carry out their job. Both of those things negatively impact engagement.

For managers keen on creating a less distracted, more respectful environment, the study offers several guidelines:

  • Create a culture in which supervisors do not feel pressure to immediately respond to emails and messages from their superiors while meeting with their employees.
  • Structure performance criteria in a manner that motivates bosses to build healthy superior-subordinate relationships. This might include annual ratings by their subordinates.
  • Train supervisors and employees on the importance of face-to-face interactions and sensitize them to phubbing’s negative impact on employee attitudes and engagement.
  • Set formal smartphone policies by setting clear rules for smartphone use, access and security—and detail specific consequences for violating those rules.

Are you guilty of whipping out your smartphone at every buzz or ding? Are you available during meetings, or do you sneak in texts while someone’s talking? Your colleagues are watching—and judging—so put the phone away, make eye contact and listen up. Too many phub flubs just might send your best workers to the nearest pub—or, worse, to a new employer.

Read more about Baylor’s study here.

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