Multitasking vs. Active Listening for Your Team

I recently received feedback that I am multitasking too much in meetings. The perception is that I am not engaged enough. This bothers me especially because multitasking during meetings has long been a pet peeve of my own. Therefore, I’m dedicating myself to fixing this. Here’s why:

A good leader serves their organization through active listening and full participation in meetings. To be a good leader, one really must be “in the moment”. Let’s compare and contrast the active listener with the multitasker in a meeting:

Jacob, the Multitasker:

Jacob is a rising star in the organization.  His seniors continue to give him demanding assignments and it seems he’s Distracted Businessman Texting During Meetingalways juggling 100 tasks.  He enters each meeting, laptop in tow, blackberry out and bluetooth headset on.  He’s often late to the meeting and / or must leave early, because he has conflicting sessions.  As the dialogue progresses, he listens for keywords while he responds to email on the blackberry and, eventually, needs to pull out his laptop .  In the most pressing times, he’s even known to attend two meetings at once – on a teleconference with his bluetooth while attending another in person.

As the dialogue  progresses, it becomes clear to the team that Jacob has not been actively listening because he asks questions that were already answered.  At times, he’ll interject suggestions and comments based on a sentence or two he caught, but it seems disconnected from the broader topic.  The result is often a need for the group to rehash previous conversation and / or clarify the matter at hand for Jacob.  But Jacob does not care, he’s just “too busy” and expects this to be the response from his team and the broader organization – it’s only natural, because we’re all “so busy”.

Michael, the Active Listener:

In contrast to Jacob, Michael makes it a point to arrive on time, typically carrying only a notebook.  He urges the team to begin promptly.  He requests an agenda before each meeting and expects the team to stick to it.  The meeting coordinator often feels “under a spotlight” but knows they have his full attention.  On the very rare occasion when Michael must step out of a meeting and / or respond to messages in the middle of a discussion, the team is surprised and knows something serious must be up, so they pause, rather than repeating dialog following the distraction.

As the meeting progresses, Michael asks detailed questions on each slide and challenges the team’s assumptions.  Minute details they intended to glance over, Michael catches and asks for clarity.  Furthermore, Michael often repeats what he thinks he heard to ensure full comprehension.  Decisions made during meetings include a decision document. If decisions are not made during the meeting, a clear action plan is defined to achieve appropriate decisions.

Which meeting would you rather be in?  Which leader would you rather follow?  Which person is really leading through service?  I may not be as bad as Jacob, but it’s clear I have some work to do on this front.  I hope you will consider this issue for yourself, as well.

Questions: How does multitasking impact your team?

About the Author:

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder - the leading blog on servant leadership and top 35 site for any leadership topic, globally. Ben also speaks and consults on IT and management topics for a large variety of clients. Find out more about him at


  1. Ryan November 18, 2011 at 10:56 pm - Reply

    Hi, my name is Ryan and I’m a multi-tasker. Is it bad that I read your article while in a meeting? Thanks for pointing this out. I agree on all points.

  2. […] Listening is a core attribute for servant leaders (under the principle, Needful). So when you are not able to hear your stakeholders over your own voice, you have a big problem. Most speakerphones still fail users in this regard. The risk is especially high for individuals using consumer grade speakerphones, such as those at home, in hotels and on your mobile device. […]

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